Continuing my review of Honor Harrington stories and novels in chronological order:
- On Basilisk Station by David Weber
This first-written novel in the Honor Harrington series, which introduces the character to those who did not read the prequels first, is easily one of the best novels in the series. Part of the reason for this is that it does not rely on any necessary background from stories that came before; it’s completely self-contained. It does an excellent job of introducing Honor herself, as well as a number of characters who become more significant later on.
We first meet Honor as a Commander in the navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, fresh from advanced tactical school, anticipating her first command of a vessel of any significant size. She is at first delighted to be given the light cruiser Fearless—until she learns that, as the result of an ill-considered experiment in new weapon and strategy development, it has had almost its entire armament gutted and replaced with a set of experimental weapons that will be completely ineffective at anything longer than knife-fighting range.
Furthermore, Harrington’s crew is a surly and maladjusted bunch who take her in strong dislike after the ship performs extremely poorly in fleet exercises due to those new weapons and is, as a result, assigned to an “unimportant” star system in the middle of nowhere. To add insult to injury, her commander in that sector turns out to be Pavel Young, an overweening nobleman with whom she has a history. And as soon as she gets there, he immediately pulls out and heads home for repairs, setting Harrington up for failure as her tiny cruiser is expected to police the entire system alone.
But from there, Harrington has nowhere to go but up. And she finds that sometimes problems solve each other, as improving the situation in the Basilisk system also improves her standing with her crew. And it turns out that their presence is fortuitous when Manticore’s cold war enemy, the People’s Republic of Haven, comes sniffing around with a scheme to expand its grasp.
Just as “coming of age” stories are called bildungsromans, there should be a name for this kind of story—the kind where a hero rides in and cleans up the town not so much by doing anything heroic or above and beyond the call of duty, but by actually doing his duty and refusing to back down. This is essentially what Honor does when she starts enforcing stellar trade laws and customs inspections in a sector where they have been allowed to slide for the last twenty years or so.
In a way, it rather reminds me of the first City Guards novel by Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!. In this story, Carrot Ironfoundersson comes to Ankh Morpork and starts enforcing all the laws from an old lawbook that was all he’d had to read on the long journey in, and so he had memorized. Carrot does this out of naiveté, but Honor starts enforcing the laws because it’s the job she was assigned and just because other people don’t do their jobs is no reason for her not to do hers. In both cases, one officer’s actions lead to far-reaching repercussions.
The story lays the foundations for the series that is to come by introducing a number of characters who will become important down the road. We get our first glimpses of Paul Tankersley and Hamish Alexander, who will both eventually become significant to Honor in more ways than one. We meet Alistair McKeon, Mercedes Brigham, the unlikely duo of Scotty Tremaine and Horace Harkness, and many others who will pop up again and again. And we also meet Pavel Young and Denver Summervale, two enjoyably vile characters with lots of promise if relatively little screen time, and the obnoxious Klaus Hauptmann.
We also get an introduction to the political situations in Manticore and the People’s Republic of Haven. Haven’s political system is particularly interesting, presenting as it does a vision of the end results of a plunge down a liberal slippery slope of welfare into a state where two thirds of the population are on welfare and it is necessary to keep conquering and looting more worlds in order to keep paying the welfare bill.
Mantcore, on the other hand, is a considerably more stable kingdom, enjoying considerable commercial advantages from its ownership of a lucrative wormhole travel nexus, with a significant political bloc opposed to anything that smacks of “foreign adventurism”. It has a Queen, a Prime Minister, a House of Lords, and a House of Commons, seemingly based very much on the British system of government though with a monarch who is a bit more than just a figurehead. (Not too surprising given that the series begins as an analogue to the Horatio Hornblower books which involve England and France.)
As the start of a series, the book shows a lot of promise. There are characters we can love to like, and characters we can love to hate. We get acquainted with Honor’s laid-back-but-firm command style and get to see it bear results as the members of her crew begin to open up and become better officers. This is something that is repeated throughout the series, in fact: much like the time-traveling Doctor, Honor Harrington simply makes those around her better.
In fact, Honor’s given name has no little significance (as her mother pointed out at the end of “Let’s Dance”). More than most other characters in the series, her honor and her personal integrity are her defining traits. Despite what some would say, she’s not perfect—she has quite a temper that she is usually careful to keep restrained, and she is as capable of making mistakes as the next person. But her personal integrity serves as a beacon to those around her who are capable of seeing its light. It draws them closer to her, until they reflect that light themselves—while repulsing those who lack it, like sunlight to a vampire.
I probably should say a word here about Weber’s tendency toward “infodumps”. They come from right out of the blue—right in the middle of something happening, Weber abruptly pauses the action and inserts an essay that goes anywhere from several paragraphs to several pages in length, about some technical, scientific, political, or other matter germane to the situation at hand. (It is usually couched in the form of an internal monologue by some character thinking about the matter.)
Some people complain that these essays come off as distinctly unnatural and play havoc with the pacing—especially ones that come right in the middle of a climactic fight scene or battle. Others see them almost affectionately as a hallmark of Weber’s writing style. Either way, they can be found all through every David Weber Honorverse novel, and On Basilisk Station is no exception.
On Basilisk Station is a great start to the series, and one of the high points of Honor’s early career. She doesn’t have any political or romantic entanglements to worry about; she’s just stuck in a bad situation and the readers get the fun of watching her make bricks without straw. While I don’t agree with some claims that the series “jumps the shark” after four or five books, I have to admit that this first novel is nonetheless one of the best.
Shortly after the events of On Basilisk Station, Honor Harrington’s tactical officer Rafe Cardones is temporarily detached to play secret agent with an Office of Naval Intelligence team who is trying to track own a new “secret weapon” that someone (presumably the Peeps) is using against Manticoran shipping with deadly effectiveness. Meanwhile, Harrington’s new Fearless is tasked with protecting shipping in the area that new weapon is targeting.
The only short story to cover Honor’s post-book career, this short story also seems to be the only piece to feature Honor as a major character that was not written by Weber himself (apart from a later story in In Fire Forged, also by Zahn, that I will cover when I get there). And it shows. Honor’s voice just seems “off” in the parts of this story that feature her. It’s not anything I can really put a finger on, but she doesn’t feel like the same person who just finished kicking butt in Basilisk.
Cardones fares better, however, perhaps because he’s received considerably less screen time than Honor so there’s not been as much time to build up an impression. His parts of the story read considerably better, and he has some fun and clever moments.
The story also introduces a character named Charles, a rogue of a weapons dealer who apparently returns in that other story I mentioned. He seems a clever and resourceful type, and it will be interesting to see what happens to him in that future story.
My next review will cover The Honor of the Queen.