Thursday, August 1

Beginnings (Worlds of Honor #6, 2013)

By David Weber with Charles E. Gannon, Timothy Zahn, and Joelle Presby

One of the greatest things about David Weber's Honor Harrington franchise is his incredible generosity in allowing others to play in the wonderfully (and increasingly intricate) sandbox he has created over the past two decades. Whole books and sub-series have been written – with his oversight, to be sure – by other great science fiction authors. This is in addition to the very actively involved consulting group BuNine which recently gave us The Honorverse Companion [link]. It all adds to the rich breadth and depth of the world in which Honor Harrington's own story is being told. This sharing of the Honorverse began as early as 1998 with the appearance of More Than Honor, which contained three novellae and short stories in addition to an extensive infodump regarding the background, history, and theoretical science of “The Universe of Honor Harrington.” That collection was followed by several more released with varying frequency over the next fifteen years, with stories written by a variety of authors both known and unknown to me – Weber himself always contributes, joined by such as David Drake, Timothy Zahn, Jane Linskjold, and S. M. Stirling – culminating in this, the sixth. Sure, the stories have been of varying quality and relevance, but they are always entertaining and more often than not, even when written by other than Weber, introduce characters and background that will show up and play integral roles in his own “main” narrative. None are to be missed by fans of the Honorverse.

In this volume we get, as usual, a mixture of novellae and short stories – I'm not sure where to drawn the line – two of which are by Weber himself. And as Weber's contribution to the very first volume gave birth a decade and a half later to the Star Kingdom series of Young Adult Novels, so does at least one of the other stories herein serve as a springboard for an ancillary series to come. As will be seen, I hope, in my short little discussions below, the overall title of this volume, Beginnings, is well-chosen.

Taking the stories in order, the first is “By the Book” by Charles E. Gannon. It is by far the earliest novel of any set in the Honorverse. Whereas even the “historical” novels starring Honor Harrington's many-times great-grandmother Stephanie are set a couple thousand years in our future, this one is set only about 350 years from now, early in the period of the human diaspora, and in our own solar system. Mankind's slow expansion to the stars has barely begun before competing political ideologies here at home threaten to bring it to an end.  Averting the absolute collapse of human civilization that would result and bring a millennium or more Dark Age depends on the artificial triggering of an Economic Winter within the next couple of years to destroy the tyrannical Earth Union. It's an intriguing story, but kind of flounders around as if the author is not sure what kind of story he wants it to be – space opera? – detective novel? – political thriller? – it eventually becomes pages and pages of expositional infodump. That is of course, not at all unusual in Weber's own stories, but not all writers can pull it off with his finesse. In any case, the title “By the Book” has two meanings – the protagonist's devotion to following the rules while ultimately being forced to make a decision to flout those rules for the good of humanity, but also the last-resort preservation of knowledge through hard-copy books.

Timothy Zahn has contracted to collaborate with Weber in writing a trilogy set during the early days of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, during the lifetime of Stephanie Harrington but telling a wider story hinted at in the recently-published Companion, when the discovery of the economically lucrative Wormhole Junction brings the Manticore Star System suddenly to the attention of the rest of the galaxy. “A Call to Arms” is perhaps Zahn's prequel story to that trilogy, but there is of course precedent for it to be the foundation for the first novel. Here we have the first inklings of what's to come with an unexpected mercenary effort to invade the system being repulsed by the early Royal Manticoran Navy, leaving the nagging question of why such an effort to conquer a small, backwater, single-system star nation was launched in the first place. This is a much more typical story of warfare in space, well-written and interesting for its portrayal of considerably more primitive technology and combat than we are used to seeing. There are no laser-head missiles; there is no artificial gravity aboard ship other than in rotating sections. I'm looking forward to the books themselves.

The first of David Weber's own stories in this volume is the longest single offering, “Beauty and the Beast,” telling the story of Honor Harrington's parents' first meeting. Alfred Harrington is a young Manticoran former marine now naval officer attending medical studies on Beowulf when he thwarts a terrorist scheme by Manpower against the powerful Benton-Ramirez y Chou family, saving the life of Allison Benton-Ramirez y Chou and befriending her brother, Jacques, who is essentially a secret agent in Beowulf's underground anti-genetic slavery efforts. Key to his effort is a telempathic connection between Alfred and Allison that formed immediately upon their meeting. We get to see Alfred go all berserker on the abductors and discover some of the ghosts haunting him from his time as a marine, which drive him to become a doctor specializing in regenerative therapy. Overall, the story helps to flesh out these two hitherto minor characters in the Honor Harrington saga, helping to explain certain cryptic references to their past, especially Allison's and her attitude toward genetic slavers in some of the more recent stories. The connection between Alfred and Allison struck me as somewhat reminiscent of “imprinting” in the Twilight stories (yes, I read them), but within the context of this series may be likened more to a human example of the treecat-human bond that plays such a large part in this series and to which the Harrington family seems extraordinarily prone. Alfred's rescue of Allison provides the cover image for this book.

The Harrington family tendency to bond with treecats informs the next subsequent short story, Weber's other, the shortest herein, entitled “Best Laid Plans.” Twelve-year-old Honor Harrington has dreams of space; treecat Laughs Brightly has devoted himself to the life of a scout for his clan. Neither of them has any intention of bonding, considering such a bond would likely ruin their plans. Nevertheless, when Honor makes a somewhat illicit hike into the bush of their home planet Sphinx, she ends up saving the lives of Laughs Brightly and his brother 'cat from deadly peak bears – and finds herself bonded to her dismay. Obviously, the reader knows that she and “Nimitz,” as she names him, manage to overcome the obstacles that treecat bonding inevitably throws in the way of a career in the Manticoran navy, considering that their subsequent relationship is at the core of the series, but Honor herself cannot see the future. Neither is the bond to be resisted, however. Overall, the story is only superficially similar to that of the original “A Beautiful Friendship” novella in More Than Honor, but while any story by Weber starring Honor is well worth reading this one really doesn't contribute much of note to the overall narrative.

I'm not too sure the final story does either. “Obligated Service” by Joelle Presby tells of a poor young Grayson girl, a dependent of Burdette Steading, who is sent into the rapidly expanding and overwhelmingly masculine Grayson star navy more as a gesture of submission to Protector Benjamin's radical social engineering.  There she experiences the difficulties which must have been inevitable in such a rapidly changing fundamentally patriarchal society attempting to conform to the “new,” “modern” egalitarian standards of Grayson's new ally Manticore. She ultimately thrives, however, and proves herself in the crucible of the aftermath of the Mesan surprise attack on Manticore and Grayson chronicled in the novel Storm from the Shadows. This is the least favorite of the stories for me, which is a shame because the premise is interesting and Claire Lecroix is a sympathetic character. Nevertheless, I found the overall writing quite confusing and hard to follow.

Overall this is another great set of contributions to the ever-expanding Honorverse mythos. Each story in its own way defines a "Beginning."  Turning the final page saddened, however, because it brought me to an ending.  I've now finished all three of the books that came out in such rapid succession in the first half of this year. The next release I know of will be Treecat Wars sometime this fall, the next in the Young Adult Star Kingdom novels. It's going to be a bit of a wait! But at least Weber has provided others the opportunity to give us stories in his Honorverse, so the wait will not be as long as it would be were we depending solely on Weber himself for our periodic fix – even with his amazing productivity. Reportedly the first of the trilogy by Zahn is expected to appear in early 2014. Based on the teaser we got in this book, I'm looking forward to it. Thank you, Mr. Weber  because What is life without Honor?

Cheers … and Thanks for reading!

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