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War of Honor

by David Weber

(Baen, £7.99, 939 pages, paperback; Volume 14 in the Honor Harrington series; November 2003.)

You have to wonder, whether science cover scanfiction series have a natural lifespan. And, if they do, what happens when they exceed it? Do they mature, in their closing stages? Or do they decay into senility? You can argue, perhaps reasonably, that either of these things may be happening to the Honor Harrington sequence of military science-fiction novels.

As I explained in a previous review, the Honor Harrington sequence is modelled rather loosely on the Franco-Brittanic conflicts during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. The Star Kingdom of Manticore (of which Honor is now a leading Admiral) plays the British part, while the Republic of Haven (renamed after its most recent coup) plays the French. At this stage, as History buffs out there will have noticed, we've finally concluded the Revolutionary epoch, and we're into the period of the brief and futile Peace of Amiens...

That, of course, presents Weber with certain problems. There's not much war actually happening at the moment. The great bulk of this really rather massive book (almost 50% longer than its predecessor), is occupied with the political and diplomatic manuevering that precedes the outbreak of the second half of the Great War.

It is also occupied with the mounting complexities of Honor's love-life - or rather with her non-love-life, as she's had the exceedingly poor taste to fall in love with a married man, the other great war hero of her nation, the Earl of White Haven. Thus she finds herself cast in the embarrassing role of the Other Woman, and is widely suspected of scheming to edge out White Haven's tragically disabled wife, Emily...

Needless to say, Honor's intentions are pure! The problem is her powerful Empathic abilities make her dreadfully prey to other peoples' emotional states. It's not just that it's so bad for her, she gets to feel how bad it is for everyone else too! So despite her serene and dignified demeanour, she's actually wobbling to and fro through her days, a bit of a mental basket-case, biting down the wretched tears as she bemoans her dreadful situation...

This novel, to use a bloodstock-breeding metaphor, is out of the Baen stable, by Mills and Boon.

But is this an unreasonable development? One can see, of course, how as Honor's Naval career advanced, she would naturally have to deal with mounting complexities of both Command and Politics. The books then, would almost inevitably have to become more involved, and digress signficantly from the tightly focussed militaria that characterised them in the first five or six volumes. Nonetheless, I'm sorry, this is a bridge too far!

Weber has allowed political and romantic themes to dominate the first half of the book, and he has much less flair for this sort of writing than he does for military matters (where, in any case, he does tend to dwell a bit obsessively on the technical capacities of the hardware...).

In the simplest terms, Weber just can't seem to invest his non-military conflicts with the same edge of tension that his military plot-lines command, and he doesn't let the military plot-lines dominate until we're far too deeply into the book. A good editor should have been let loose on the material, and culled a hundred pages or so from the first 500. As it is, one has a long hard slog to get through before the action begins and the tension intensifies.

As is almost always the case with long-run science fiction series, once a reader has made the effort to read a half-dozen volumes or so, they aren't going to turn around and walk away from the story without a very good reason, and Weber is still providing plenty of (much delayed) punch. Nonetheless, the proportion of padding to punch has been steadily climbing for some time now and one gets a hefty serving of exasperation along with the laser beams and grav-warhead missiles...

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, do you want to read space-opera, or soap-opera? Because at this stage in the Honor Harrington series, you're going to get plenty of both.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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