After writing a number of novels in the Honor Harrington series, David Weber and other writers he invited to participate started writing stories that fit between or before the novels, issued in anthology collections that came out every couple of years. Since I’m rereading the series in chronological order, I’m going to start my reviews by looking at the short stories and novellas that are set before the first novel.
In any long series in which some books are written out of chronological order, the question arises: What is the “proper” order in which to read them? Some hold that publication order is best, since that’s the order in which a person reading them for the first time would have gotten the stories. Others feel that since the events happen in a certain order, it’s best to read them in that order.
Perhaps the best answer, however, is that it depends on the series. In some cases, books set earlier solve mysteries that are meant to remain mysterious in earlier books. In the case of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, for example, the novels set earlier but written later actually give away the entire cosmology behind the universe, which readers aren’t supposed to know over the course of the written-earlier, set-later novels. Something similar could be said for C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series’s book 4, The Magician’s Nephew. (Fortunately the filmmakers decided to go with publication for the start of their movie franchise.)
With other series, such as Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe, it doesn’t matter as much. Everything’s interconnected and it doesn’t matter where you jump on.
Honor Harrington falls somewhere in the middle. The early stories may give away a few minor mysteries, such as just how smart treecats really are and the truth behind various assassination attempts on Manticoran royalty, but there’s nothing that will seriously “spoil” anyone’s fun if they read the later novels down the road.
Some of these stories involve characters and situations that will become important in later novels, and a few references might go over new readers’ heads—but on the other hand, as short stories, they were written to be more or less complete in and of themselves, as they might see magazine publication and be read by someone who had never read anything else set in that universe.
First come what I think of as the treecat trilogy:
- “A Beautiful Friendship” by David Weber (More than Honor anthology)
- “The Stray” by Linda Evans" (Worlds of Honor anthology)
- “What Price Dreams?” by David Weber (Worlds of Honor anthology)
These stories are set hundreds of years before the novels. Nobody in any of them is alive by the time of the main series, so they’re really just background pieces, and they largely cover the same background: treecats.
Honor Harrington’s friend and life-long companion Nimitz is a treecat—a six-limbed arboreal creature that is something like a ferret, something like a lemur, and something like a cat. (None of the cover art ever presents them correctly.) Treecats are telepaths among themselves and empathically sensitive among others, and some of them bond for life to human companions such as Honor. For at least the first few books, their level of native intelligence is never really spelled out, but these stories feature something that most of the novels don’t: narration from the treecats’ point of view.
“A Beautiful Friendship,” set 420 years before On Basilisk Station, is the story of the first encounter between humanity and the treecats, in the form of Honor’s ancestor Stephanie Harrington and a young scout named Climbs Quickly. It reads a lot like a juvenile adventure story (which is why it’s unsurprising that Weber has decided to write young-adult fiction centering around Stephanie and Climbs Quickly, with the first book taking the same title as the short story). and covers the debate among the treecat councils about whether they should let themselves become involved with the two-legs. (They had been hiding for some time, concerned over what the technologically-more-capable humans might do to them if they were found out.)
In “The Stray”, set a year later, Dr. Scott MacDallan and his treecat (who saved his life when he took a bad fall fishing) must track down the culprit responsible for murdering another treecat’s partner and releasing a contaminant that killed off an entire treecat clan’s habitat. By this time the pattern has been set: treecats and their human partners are conspiring to conceal the treecats’ true human-equivalent level of intelligence from outsiders, for fear that they might be vulnerable to exploitation.
Then the timeline jumps 170 years ahead for “What Price Dreams?”, which brings Princess Adrienne Winton, heir to Manticore’s royal family and ancestor of Honor’s Queen Elizabeth Winton, into the story. It also mentions the underworld syndicate The Organization, who will resurface in On Basilisk Station. It turns out that the treecats have kept up their deception (as indeed they will even into Honor’s day), and as a result there is controversy over just how intelligent they really are—and how legally protected they should be. Adrienne’s father the King is opposing a bill that would expand their rights—but something is about to happen that will bring changes, and not just Adrienne’s (pretty-well-telegraphed) adoption by a treecat of her own, either.
One of the important points about these stories is that the treecats share the spotlight with humans: their points of view are given equal time to humans’, showing that they are just as intelligent as and able to communicate among themselves just as well as humans can. Their mental communication is rendered as idiomatic English, which some people may find a bit hard to swallow, but it works. It does tend to show a different side to treecats than that presented in the first book or two—but it becomes clear pretty quickly even in those that there’s more going on than just dumb animal companionship.
These stories are a far cry from the space naval affairs that the series is known for, but that’s to the good: it just goes to show that there’s room in the universe for a lot more than just naval battles and unsinkable officers. It’s certainly quite the big universe that can contain both sparring battleships and telepathic furry animal companions.
Some people find treecats a little twee or otherwise hard to take, but I’ve always enjoyed them. Ever since I read the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, I’ve had a soft spot for telepathic animal companions. If only I could have one of my very own…
Coming Up: More Prequel Stories