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Ashes of Victory by David Weber

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Honor Harrington has just done the impossible again. Not only has she escaped from the Peeps' supposedly impregnable prison planet known as Hades, but she has also brought over 400,000 fellow prisoners along with her. There is much rejoicing as thousands given up for dead return to their relatives.

However, some of these unexpected "resurrections" create as much trouble as joy, particularly for Honor herself. Although many of the other escapees were listed as Missing in Action, she was thought to be definitely dead, thanks to a faked video of her being hanged as a war criminal. Thus, her will was executed and her possessions have been distributed to her heirs. Furthermore, her titles have passed to others, which creates even more difficulties -- should they now be taken away from the heirs and returned to her, or should those confirmed as her heirs retain their new titles, leaving her with no standing?

Honor is also healing her wounds, having her ruined eye and missing arm replaced by sophisticated electronics since a flaw in her genome leaves her unable to benefit from regeneration therapies. But she is not the only one to have been dealt lasting injuries -- her companion Nimitz the treecat has also been deprived of a vital sense. The blow to his mid-pelvis (treecats, like all Sphinxian vertebrates, have three pairs of limbs rather than two) didn't just leave him lame. It also damaged a vital nerve ganglion, leaving him unable to make telepathic contact with his fellow treecats. He can receive their sendings, but is no longer able to transmit his own telepathic voice. Because of the paucity of knowledge about treecat physiology, there is a limit to the action physicians can ethically take in direct intervention.

However, there are other possibilities, as Honor's father, a dedicated physician soon discovers while researching in some very old pre-regeneration medical textbooks. However, he and others are dubious at first -- there were previous attempts to teach treecats sign language, and all of them met with failure. But never before had a treecat developed such an intense bond with his human as Nimitz enjoys with Honor, so there is some question of whether the earlier treecats really understood the nature and purpose of human communication systems, so different from their own -- and never before were the treecats really sure that it was wise to reveal the extent of their intelligence to the two-footed settlers of their world. So long as the two-legs saw them as adorable little furry animals, intelligent only in the manner of beasts, there would be no sense of rivalry, only the urge to protect the small and helpless. But might that change for the worse if humans were to see the People as beings as wise as themselves, albeit not so technologically advanced?

But Nimitz's bond with Honor and what he has seen while accompanying her on her various missions in the service of the Queen has led to a new sense of the moral capacities of humans, or at least the humans who make up the political decisionmaking class of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. So Nimitz sets to learning sign language with a will, and soon all the treecats who have bonded with humans are busily chatting through their nimble true-hands, banishing forever any question about their status as wise beings, not merely beasts.

Meanwhile, Manticore and Grayson are still at war with the People's Republic of Haven, the star nation who had captured and tortured Honor. Her escape and freeing of such a vast number of people has caused them to lose face in the international arena, and particularly given the instability of the new regime that has taken over after the Harris Assassination toppled the Legislaturists, they cannot afford to stand by and look weak. So they are busily plotting how to avenge themselves and put an end to the threat represented by Manticore. And all the time they're nervously watching their own backs, because now that they've toppled the established government, they've made the idea of a coup thinkable for other people who had previously looked at the situation as something that simply had to be put up with. People such as a certain very capable and possibly quite ambitious young admiral of their space navy.

In this novel we see a shift away from the focus on the tactics and strategy of space battles to issues of grand strategy and policy. This is not surprising, given the way in which Honor has been moving upward in rank and influence, particularly in her adopted homeworld, Grayson. In fact, the only previous book that had this much attention to high-level politics was Flag in Exile, in which she was exiled there after her final confrontation with the notorious Lord Pavel Young, Earl North Hollow and instead of finding a safe haven from her troubles, she wound up in the midst of a vipers' nest of intrigue. However, that was just the politics of a single world, particularly the problem of the increasing marginalization of a conservative group that once represented a considerable political power base and their desperate attempts to stop the social change that is eroding their position and leading the majority to regard them as irrelevant fossils of days gone by.

In Ashes of Victory politics increasingly means the place of Manticore and Grayson in the larger galactic political scene, as Honor is invited to sit on councils and advise her sovereign -- actually, both of them, for Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore and Protector Benjamin Mayhew of Grayson are increasingly coming to regard her practical experience in warfare and her straightforward view of the universe as invaluable. She is the person who will dare to speak truth to authority, and she has the proven performance under fire to back it up.

This shift in focus means that the storyline becomes increasingly complex and difficult to follow, compared to the straightforward ones of the novels that centered principally around space combat proper. There are more complex relationships to keep track of, and more people are operating with hidden agendas, presenting themselves as holding positions or supporting causes they are not, in order to lure their opponents into untenable positions. Because the scope of this novel has become exponentially wider than previous ones, it creates a sense of diffusion compared to the tight focus of previous books upon either small-unit fighting or Honor's political infighting with personal enemies.

However, that should not be taken to mean that David Weber has lost his touch with dynamic and well-described space battles. Far from it, he actually has that much more opportunity to detail encounters between various units of the opposing star nations, simply because he is now looking at his story universe from such an elevated perspective that more of them fall into view, all the way up to the climactic act of treachery which will completely upset everything we have been treating as permanent givens about the Manticorean and Graysonian political scenes.

Review posted May 11, 2010.

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