Or, “how not to establish a scenario”.
David Weber, author of various mostly best-selling science fiction and fantasy series, is an author whose work is one of my guilty pleasures. His writing is not particularly good, but it is not offensively bad, either. His ideas are often quite interesting, although he could use an editor, or at least a backspace key. He has several personal hobby-horses, a few of which carry over from one series to another, but in the main they make for more thoughtful (and sometimes more realistic) story-telling than you often get from your average popular sci-fi hack.
Probably the most dominant theme in much of Weber’s work is the idea of shared humanity – that good guys and bad guys can be found everywhere, on the “right” and “wrong” side of war, pursuing honor or shady personal gain for good reasons or bad, with good cause or shoddy excuse. If the extent to which he hammers this point home has fallen off a little bit in his latest Honorverse books, it may simply because he managed to write himself past his original plot.
However, Hell’s Gate – not a book featuring starships, or people named Honor – is not one of his better efforts. I can’t say how much that may be the co-author’s fault, as I’ve never read any of Evan’s own work. The long-winded fake tech details are noticeably mostly lacking, which is, I think, a good thing here. The writing is not particularly worse than his usual. The characters are the usual mix of intriguing and somewhat cliched but redeemable, Weber’s version of a white knight, and various cardboard extras. The plot, though…
As might be guessed from the title (after you found out it wasn’t a novelization or re-setting of Thermopylae), the book is about the launching of a massive war between two industrial (more or less) era civilizations. It should surprise no reader of Weber’s work to find out that he tries hard to sell the war’s beginning as basically due to an accident. What does come as a surprise is that almost everyone on one side is either incompetent, cowardly, pliable, or conniving, at least at what Weber likes to call the “pointy end” of the action – while the other side, one book in, is made up almost entirely of intelligent, well-meaning, implausibly successful people.
Now, either one of those is a plausible enough explanation for starting a war. A mess of accidents between possibly well-meaning but definitely suspicious people who don’t really understand each other? Sure. A military run amok without adequate supervision, with nefarious dudes promoted to places they shouldn’t be, running into new worlds to conquer? Sure. (Though over-sanctifying the other side might still be a mistake.) But they’re not particularly compatible premises, especially when the author is trying hard to establish his usual point of view – explaining or sympathizing with every character’s point of view.
In fairness, I find Weber’s talent for showing motive – and using personal motives and behavior as a driving force – compelling enough that I will probably track down the sequel at some point. Weber and Evans have managed to compile some fairly interesting characters, and it’s possible that the White Knights may lose some luster once things get more heated. But the book itself I give a D. Maybe a C-. Maybe.