At All Costs by David Weber
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
I'd originally been somewhat put off on this installment of the Honor Harrington series by talk on Baen's Bar about Honor setting up some kind of weird group marriage arrangement with Hamish and Emily Alexander. I've seen far too many series "jump the shark" and go downhill rapidly after two characters who had a strong romantic dynamic based upon the unavailability of one or the other somehow finally get together. Generally once the "happily ever after" happens, the story tension leaks away and the whole story collapses like a balloon -- while the "happily ever after" of a marriage can be a wonderful validation for a closed-arc story, it can spell the death of an open-ended series.
At leas to me, the attraction between Honor and Hamish had just the sort of poignancy that created powerful story tension. They are intensely attracted to each other, yet their powerful sense of personal propriety and yes, honor, makes it impossible for them to acknowledge it -- and the element of Emily's tragic injury and disability makes it even more painful, and more critical that, whatever their inner feelings may be, they absolutely must never act upon them.
Which is why I was acutely uncomfortable even with the element in the previous book, War of Honor, in which the bereaved treecat Samantha re-bonds with Hamish Alexander and, using her telepathy, breaks the news to Emily in the gentlest way possible, so she sees the situation not as betrayal, but as something that her natural generosity will want to help develop in a direction that no longer requires pretense and denial -- an idea rather reminiscent of the Oneida Community's notion of its members not abandoning marriage, but enlarging it to include other members of the Community as well.
Part of the problem seems to be that David Weber originally intended the story arc to end with Honor being killed heroically in a huge climactic space battle right around this point, and thus had thought that letting the forbidden lovers get a happy moment just before Honor's big blaze of glory would be a consolation. However, when the series became far more popular than he had ever anticipated (not to mention one of Baen Books' biggest moneymakers), it became increasingly obvious that he could not kill off the title character. As a result, this is the novel in which Honor and Hamish get their happily ever after -- but the story will continue on afterward.
Still, I'm not entirely comfortable with the solution, for the simple reason that it feels far too much like simply taking the net down to make the tennis game easier. On one level I can understand the rationale that cultural contact with Grayson and their tradition of plural marriage has made the possibility more thinkable for Manticoreans -- but I still feel like such a solution should have been accompanied by a permanent move to Grayson and shift of allegiance, not this overly convenient change of Manticorean rules to accommodate them. It almost makes me wish that he'd instead gone the route of having Emily killed off in some plot-critical terrorist or military attack and then, after a suitable mourning period, Hamish could be free to wed Honor, yet with that scar of bereavement always a part of his character.
As a result, I'm no longer sure how interested I'll be in reading more of Honor's own storyline. Will the author continue to just write away the various difficulties which had simultaneously made Honor's life rough and given the story much of its power? Or will he get the story back on track and start putting her into tough situations again, the sort of things that her stern sense of moral rectitude used to put her into.
(And speaking of rectitude, I had always liked how Grayson didn't seem to have a double standard -- men were held to the same high standard of sexual continence as women, and there was no "boys will be boys" excuse-making or accepting of premarital and extramarital affairs so long as they were with "fallen" women. In this volume there is a substantial passage dealing with a number of situations in which Steadings passed to the illegitimate sons of a Steadholder when none of his wives had produced a legitimate male heir. Now it may be that these mistresses are actually more on the order of concubines, love matches that cannot be given the status of full wives because they are not of the appropriate rank in society -- "not of equal birth," as it was termed in European morganatic marriages -- rather than the products of furtive illicit liaisons, and there is no pool of "fallen" women who can be treated as common to all and with whom liaisons are winked at. But that will remain to be seen).
On the other hand, Weber has made the fictional universe in which Honor Harrington operates large enough that there are still plenty of side stories strong enough that I want to keep on reading. In particular, the Mesa thread, which he apparently had originally intended to be a follow-on series involving Honor's children but which was accelerated by several novellas written by Eric Flint for the anthologies, is rapidly developing a pulling power that makes me willing to overlook the way Honor's own personal thread seems to have jumped the shark. If Honor's own story is the Napoleonic Wars rewritten in space, the Mesa storyline is the battle against the slave trade and chattel slavery, which in our world really took off right after the British victory in the Napoleonic Wars (before that nobody in Western society had really seriously questioned the morality of slavery except the Quakers, who were that era's equivalent of hippie peacenik goofballs) and reached its culmination in the US Civil War.
However, Weber has added a Gattica-style science fiction twist of the slaves being genetically engineered for their roles. It's almost reminiscent of the azi in C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen, except with all the brutality we generally associate with chattel slavery. While it is explicitly stated in Cyteen that no CIT Supervisor is ever allowed to even raise his or her voice with an azi, Mesan genetic-slave training routinely includes abuses that leave a lifetime of psychological scars on freed slaves, even those who have access to top-tier psychotherapy. Of course the fact that Mesa doesn't have any equivalent to the "tape" system of deepteaching which is so important in Cherryh's universe is probably a big reason Mesan slavers resort to such stomach-turning brutality in the training and managing of genetic slaves. On the other hand, it could be just because they are the Bad Guys and enjoy being sadistic douchebags, and thus don't bother to develop less cruel (and more reliable, given how many slaves find ways to escape and defect to the Good Guys) methods.
And for all the wordage in this novel that was devoted to the soap opera of Honor's personal life, I'm quite gratified to see that a fair amount of it was given over to Mesa's scheming. They may not be strong enough to take on other star nations on their own, but their total lack of any moral compunctions where biological manipulation is concerned means that they are in an excellent position to play nasty games of "let's you and him fight" without people necessarily seeing the lines of manipulation.
For instance, just who is behind several attacks in which people have made attacks that are completely at variance with their known personalities and loyalties -- and were showing clear signs throughout the attacks that they were fighting some kind of mental compulsion? Acts that all are working together to destroy the fragile peace that has been established between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Republic of Haven.
Oh, and just to let us know that he hasn't forgotten how to write those bang-up space battles that originally brought us to the series, Weber concludes this book with one that will leave the reader absolutely breathless. I think he's managed to top himself in terms both of the sheer amount of tonnage destroyed and in the bodycount. He's getting into "one more victory like this and we will be done for" territory.
And perhaps that's exactly what certain shadowy forces want. Forces that are lurking along the edges of the Honorverse. Forces that may well become increasingly important in future novels of the series.
Review posted December 14, 2009.
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