Review: Uncompromising Honor

I’ve left spoilers out of this post. I’m debating another one with spoilers, but it would mostly just be listing all the things that annoyed me. The linked post from last year does have spoilers from War of Honor.

As series finales go, Uncompromising Honor is already the second one in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which by itself neatly sums up the difficulty of trying to judge the book fairly. It is not in any sense a stand-alone novel, and while I’m incapable of thinking myself into approaching in in that frame of mind at this point, I suspect the flaws would loom larger than the successes.

The successes, from a plot and series perspective, are considerable. Weber has neatly gathered up the loose ends due to his own foibles as a writer, together with the frayed ones where Eric Flint got a bit carried away with his spin-off series (technically co-authored with Weber, but as best I can tell this amounted to making sure the timeline didn’t get too impossible to sync with the main series), and tied them off neatly enough. Flint’s next book will – whatever the plot overlap – be, I suspect, essentially launching a new storyline, while I’m not sure what, if anything, Weber still intends to do with the Honorverse.

The failures are individually smaller, and in line with the same authorial bad habits I detailed a year ago when I called War of Honor “The Worst Honor Harrington Book”: Weber attempts to maintain realism and present all sides, but the coincidences work out too well, the good guys don’t make enough mistakes to make the bad guys’ howlers believeable while readying, and when it comes to political characters shades of gray are distinctly missing. In addition, this one shows up Weber’s tendency to utopian thinking a bit too strongly to be plausible at the climax.

Still, if as a book At All Costs – the first attempt at a series finale – was better, by then the side stories were spiraling out of control: this one actually manages to put a cap on things. It does leave plenty of questions unanswered – let’s call them plot hooks – and I suspect the forthcoming volume will have plenty of cans of worms to open up, but the main set of problems has been dealt with.

If you’ve read the series but not this one, you’ll probably want to. (If you haven’t read the series yet, but want to, it’s quite long, not to say outsize, at this point. The first three books – On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen, and The Short Victorious War are probably the best. The first two actually can be read as stand-alone novels, but the third invokes long-term plot arcs so if you get that far and you’re a completionist on these things… well, you can probably imagine.)

The Worst Honor Harrington Book

I’ll start with the warnings.  First, this is a rant, and it’s a rant by a fan.  There will be spoilers.  Second, this is not actually about the worst Honor Harrington book (that I’ve read), which is Cauldron of Ghosts, but that’s properly a side story and not the main line.  And if I think David Weber’s been letting Eric Flint influence the main story too much, let alone the side story that’s mostly Flint’s own creation and responsibility, well, that’s not really the point here either.

Third, this isn’t really even about my complaints about certain ‘verse-building choices – the addition of treecat sign language, the title character’s developing psychic empathic powers, or even (since it doesn’t even show up in the book in question) the use of Mesan nanotechnology as a deus ex machina whenever Weber or his co-authors write themselves into a corner that requires something really implausible to get out of.  Or occasionally something really implausible to set up future conflicts.

No, this is about the problems with War of Honor, in which a number of David Weber’s authorial weaknesses combine in unfortunate ways, as well as one gigantic mistake by his characters that even Weber’s having them point out as a mistake they made doesn’t keep it from being a major problem with the plot.

I’ll get this major plot hole out of the way first.  The climactic battle only works out in Harrington’s favor because a heavy reinforcement for her understrength Manticoran force is sent to her unofficially from Grayson.  Yet the opposing Havenite fleet commanders knew the reinforcements were missing from their normal post on a “training” mission, and never even ask if the destination (or exercise area) is known.  And these are supposed to be the smart opponents, not the dumb ones that have been thinned out over the course of the series.  Of course these mistakes do happen in war – but this one is just a little too convenient, made in the execution of a plan that’s supposedly been worked over with several of the proverbial fine-toothed combs.  It sours the taste of the final victory – and piling on another improbable scouting coincidence that let Harrington know a surprise attack was coming and set a trap only makes it worse.

So the plot, as it concerns Harrington, has a rather hollow core.  But if the only problem were the military implausibilities, it could be shrugged off.  The history of military operations is in some respects nothing but a collection of really stupid decisions from people who should have known better, or others who just got absurdly lucky, from Carrhae to Agincourt to Midway.

No, what really grates is the Manticoran politicos.  For a change, the opposition parties (from the perspective of most of the main characters) have charge of things – and there’s not a reputable viewpoint among them.  Which, from Weber, whose work is distinctive in large part because of his dedication to presenting antagonists as openly – and mostly fairly – as possible, is an awful falling off.  His Havenite oligarchs that we start the series with are hardly sympathetic, but they’re as invested in trying to control the tiger they’re stuck riding as merely continuing to make a profit – not nice people, but not abnormal, and unsentimentally aware they’re stuck with a poor system, as far as they can see – or dare to see, at least.  His first batch of revolutionaries are presented symapthetically, even though their behavior is modeled on some of the worst excesses of the French and Russian revolutions.  The rather blatantly named Rob S. Pierre, in particular, is a fairly well-done portrait of an extremist with good intentions trying to deal with the results of his own initial success.

Of course one can write a series in flatter tones, with villains and heroes plain to see if not quite color-coded.  But that’s not Weber’s reputation: so when that’s the tone for the heroes merely domestic antagonists (while the foreign enemies and allies retain their respectful presentations – mostly), the book as a whole is jarringly out of place in the series – or the series as it was to that point.  As noted in passing above, I think Eric Flint’s influence as a co-author has had an over-simplifying effect on the series (to say nothing of Weber, partly because of Flint’s side series, ending up having to write himself out of a hole dug by not wrapping up the story where he originally intended).  But Flint writes openly uncomplicated stories with over-the-top hijinks: by way of cheap comparison, he plays Errol Flynn to Weber’s Humphrey Bogart.

Worst of all, however – though it’s only a tiny detail in one sense – is that War of Honor begins in the middle of a truce, and despite these open villains taking charge of Manticore’s government, and being presented quite early as perfectly willing to present a selective view of diplomatic correspondence for public – or even wider private – consumption, Weber can’t quite bring himself to have Manticore commit the final falsifications of correspondence that bring the war raging back.  Instead it’s pinned for plot purposes on Haven’s new Secretary of State and his staff.  Now said official is ambitious enough for any three normal people, but that’s par for the course among politicians even in this universe.  But it’s never convincingly explained exactly what he thinks he’s getting from the changes made – which are not specified.  (And, to put the side-stepping cherry on top, in the sequel he’s conveniently discarded before the question can be forced in Haven of what exactly the diplomatic responsibilities are between President and Secretary of State – as what he’s guilty of – that we’re told about – is more or less making changes without informing the President.)

Fortunately for Weber, the next two volumes published in the Honorverse were side stories – one Flint’s creation, the other Weber’s own idea to continue the story after the main plot wrapped up – and much lighter in tone, so that when he got around to finishing At All Costs, the volume that was supposed to wrap up the main story – even if it had in the meantime been dragged much closer chronologically to the other now-continuing intended-to-be-sequel series than Weber had planned – I at least was ready to see what happened without too much trepidation and the bad taste of this one rather forgotten.  But it’s a really bad taste.

Review: A Two-for-One

One of my popcorn guilty pleasures has for the last several years been David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which with spinoffs and what-not is now quite a large number of books.  I have read most of them, I think, and while at this point the continuing series is beginning to drag quite a bit, I have this thing about finishing books I start, at least eventually.  So when I went to the library and noticed a new pair of titles in the series I figured I’d read them.  One of the causes of the series getting quite so large was that Weber started doing collaborations on side-stories with other authors.  At this point I think the other authors do most of the writing for their particular bit, and Weber mostly checks it over for consistency – more or less – with the main story.

Cauldron of Ghosts with Eric Flint

Eric Flint is another sci-fi author who mostly deals in time-travel scenarios and whose writing is not very good.  This particular book is a touch above his regular stuff, but in the end it’s pretty much the same kind of thing.  Flint doesn’t provide much substance – his characters, much like the stereotypical American movie-going public, mostly all seem to like sex and stuff blowing up.  His plots, such as they are, are wildly implausible.  His heroes are basically superheroes in all but name.  It’s hard to find much of a redeeming factor to his work – about the only thing is that he makes it clear that he, the author, knows exactly what he’s doing.  He also writes some very funny scenes, with a tendency to slapstick.  I don’t know that the book’s much good, though.

A Call to Duty with Timothy Zahn

Zahn, on the other hand, is a fairly solid writer – stylistically better than Weber, let alone Flint.  He’s best known for a pair of series in the Star Wars “expanded universe”, but his own stuff is also pretty good most of the time and usually fairly interesting.  He writes mostly sci-fi, with a lot of aliens.  Commonly he features characters with technologically enhanced abilities (for good and bad), and his plots tend toward mysteries and spying, though often with a background of, as the phrase goes, galactic unrest.

Almost all of Zahn’s protagonists, though, tend to be practical, not to say hard-bitten, type who know how the world works and just want to get their job done.  So it was a little bit of a surprise to find that the lead here is a kid just out of high school; and the setting, years before Weber’s main timeline, back near the beginning of Manticore’s history.  (The series – this is apparently going to be a series – is called “Manticore Ascendant”, so that’s not a spoiler.)

Anyway, this one doesn’t quite work.  Part of it is the problem of trying to write a protagonist who doesn’t quite know what he’s doing and still make him out a hero.  Part of it is a general lack of detail in explaining how various things work – an odd complaint when Weber is usually criticized, and rightly, for putting in too much detail, but true all the same.  Mostly, though, the pacing of the book doesn’t quite work.  The thing is spread over several years, and yet the characters – and situations – don’t develop much.

So neither of these books was particularly good.  Cauldron was more entertaining, taken by itself, but I’m rapidly running out of patience with Flint’s schtick (and with the whole Mesa storyline, for that matter).  A Call to Duty was a weak book, but the story might have some promise going forward.  At least it’s a newer (to the reader) setting.