From the front flap of the dust jacket:
“Invitation to a Party
“(Bring Your Own Warships)
“Wrong number? There are two sides to every quarrel … unless there are more.
“Admiral Michelle Henke, Queen Elizabeth of Manticore's first cousin and Honor Harrington's best frie[n]d,* has just handed the 'invincible' Solarian League Navy the most humiliating, one sided defeat in its almost thousand year history in defense of the people of the [Manticoran] Star Empire's Talbott Quadrant. But the League is the most powerful star nation in the history of humanity. Its navy is going to be back – and this time with thousands of superdreadnoughts.
“Yet she also knows scores of other star systems – some independent, some controlled by puppet regimes, and some simply conquered outright by the Solarian Office of Frontier Security – lie in the Solarian League's grip along its frontier with the Talbott Quadrant. The entire frontier has begun to seethe with unrest as combat spreads from the initial confrontation, and Michelle sympathizes with the oppressed populations wanting only to be free of their hated masters.
“She has only so many ships, which can be in only so many places at a time. She can't possibly justify diverting any of her limited, outnumbered strength to the liberation of other planets when she has worlds of her own to defend from a vengeful League.
“She knows that … and she doesn't care. She comes from a family that believes some things are far more important than simply playing it safe. Mike Henke will find a way to win.
“And anyone who gets in her way will regret it.”
So reads the publisher's hook for the latest addition to what has become, in my mind, the greatest space opera series in modern science fiction. Nominally, I think this novel is being billed as the fourteenth novel in the Honor Harrington series, but it provides another demonstration of how that “series” has outgrown itself, sprawling out to 25 volumes including collections of short stories and ancillary series. And that's counting just from the list facing the title page, which does not include at least three more books (that I know of) that are scheduled for 2013 itself. Collectively, it's all under the umbrella of the “Honorverse,” which is indeed how the front cover subtitle reads and is in fact a better indication of this story's place in the overall mega-saga. Because, as the above description indicates, the central character is Michelle Henke, who has become one of several alternative foci characters as Honor Harrington herself has proceeded so far up the chain of command in the Royal Manticoran Navy and become so central an adviser in Her Majesty's Government that she is far more important in the home system itself than on the front lines of the multi-front war. Honor herself does not appear in Shadow of Freedom at all, despite a back-cover blurb that “Fans of this venerable space opera will rejoice to see Honor back in action” – and despite the front cover painting that clearly shows David Mattingly's Honor Harrington and Nimitz front and center with poor Michelle – I presume, or is that Queen Elizabeth herself given the treecat on her shoulder? – off to the right.
In its conception, this volume itself embodies the “series of series'” expanding narrative, because it was originally not a separate novel at all, but rather just part of the preceding volume, A Rising Thunder (link) When that book grew to about twice as long as the publisher would accept, the obvious solution was to cut it in half. It's obvious that this is not just the back half of that original story, however. The considerable chronological overlap between A Rising Thunder and Shadow of Freedom suggests that the parts dealing with events in and around the Talbott Quadrant and the adjacent Madras Sector have been extracted and grouped together.
In its own right, Shadow of Freedom is another enthralling addition to Weber's hugely complex, sprawling epic with literally hundreds of characters on dozens of worlds – and I'm probably low-balling that off-the-cuff estimate. Sometimes I do long for the relative simplicity of the earliest books in the series, and these days I do find refreshing such things as the Stephanie Harrington Star Kingdom novels (link), which are ostensibly for, and more suitable for, younger readers while still interesting enough for old farts like me. But it is inarguably satisfying in a different way to be able to immerse myself in the richly developed universe of the main series that gains an amazing verisimilitude from its sheer complexity.
One thing I like very much, and which seems more noticeable in this book possibly because of its odd genesis and parallel narrative to its “sister” novel, is a very good sense of the varying speeds with which information itself can be disseminated given a vast interstellar astrography complicated by more than just incredible straight-line distances. There are also the wormhole junctions that allow instantaneous travel across hundreds of light-years, making some remotely distant systems relatively next-door neighbors, as well as the gravimetric gradients that vary the speed at which a starship can travel through the hyperspace that most interstellar travel depends on. A great deal is made of the resulting “fog of war” which makes some antagonists unaware of critical events that maybe occurred months before and which could make all the difference in the world to their current decisions. It is simply amazing to me that David Weber seems to be able to juggle all his characters and plots and who-knows-what-and-when and that his narrative has not collapsed under its own weight. (I know I can't keep it all straight, and over the past couple of weeks the Honorverse Wiki [link] has once again become my best friend.) Risking shouts of “heresy!” I'm tempted to liken the accomplishment to J. R. R. Tolkien's similar complexity of world-building and story-telling in his tales of Middle Earth.
All in all, this post has, sort of like my others for books in the series, becomes more about the series as a whole than the book itself. In a way, that's appropriate because to fully appreciate the Honorverse it's necessary to start at the beginning, with On Basilisk Station, and read on in publication order. The only exception to that would be the young-adult Stephanie Harrington Star Kingdom novels which stand separate, taking place hundreds of years in the past of Stephanie's great-great-...-great-granddaughter Honor. For Shadow of Freedom, the inside-flap description quoted above sets up the situation fairly well, while only hinting at the nefarious plot being orchestrated by the Mesan Alignment as part of its no longer quite so secret grand scheme to push the great interstellar powers into a mutually destructive galactic conflagration that will leave themselves as the last power standing. A great part of this book is devoted to their efforts to simultaneously discredit Manticoran efforts to support freedom movements on the Solarian League frontier and spread Manticoran naval resources too thin. But the Mesans have not counted on hints of their centuries-old conspiracy coming to light, and on the military genius, indomitable will, and sheer determination of Admiral Michille Henke, which puts them right in her cross-hairs in an ending which has me looking forward to the inevitable continuation of her story.
Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!
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*Peeve: What do they pay editors and proofreaders for these days? It's obviously not proofreading! As actually printed, Michelle is “Honor Harrinton's best fried.” This is something I rail againat in comics but am seeing increasingly in mainstream – not just small press – books. Rampant typographical errors. To be fair, if I saw any in the text of the book itself, they weren't egregious enough to make an impression on me, but Come on! – this is on the inside front flap that I dare say most readers, whether grizzled old fans like me or coming to the series cold, are going to look at first! It does not reflect well on the publisher.