Beginnings by David Weber, editor
Cover Art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This volume is the sixth in the series of Honorverse anthologies which began with More than Honor. The series grew out of fans' requests to hear the "stories behind the stories," many of which simply were outside the scope of the main novels and often too short to stand on their own as novels. Most of them were side stories, looks into areas of the Honorverse that had previously been only glimpsed as "far trees," if at all.
This volume focuses especially on backstories, as the title suggests. How did institutions and relationships begin? What events created the situations that we see in these novels, that are set in a time several millennia ahead of us, as distant to the here and now as we are from Rameses the Great or Homer's grim Achaean Greeks heroes?
One of the greatest risks of the prequel is the urge to account for everything in a way that reads as simply too neat and tidy. Several well-known novel series have done serious damage to readers' suspension of disbelief by writing prequel novels that tied together too many characters' early lives in ways that often outright contradicted the previous novels that had them meeting for the first time.
On the other hand, one can also fail by having too little of the central material of the series in the prequel story. When I first read Charles E. Gannon's "By the Book," I was a little puzzled why this story was even included in an Honorverse anthology. Not that it's a bad story -- in fact, it's a very well-written hard sf novel of a space-based society within our own solar system about three centuries in the future. It could very well belong in an issue of Analog, or any of several Baen hard-sf anthologies.
And quite honestly, the story stands on its own so well that I almost wish it hadn't been shoehorned into the Honorverse by the reference to the Diaspora dating system and the afterword describing how those events sparked the upheavals that would create the Diaspora. This story has strong, compelling characters, particularly the frustrated protagonist who faces a glass ceiling because the spaceborn aren't trusted for senior positions, which are all filled by Earthborn with the proper political pedigrees. There is plenty of applicability to present-day political issues without it reading like a political tract, and the space rescue sequences provide plenty of excitement, especially since our protagonist has to get around some restrictive rules of engagement that are supposed to be more humane but in fact makes it more difficult to resolve the situation quickly and thus increases the likelihood of suffering and death.
Timothy Zahn's "A Call to Arms" is less obvious of a beginning, dealing as it does with the Battle for Manticore from At All Costs. It deals with several minor ships in that battle, particularly the Phoenix and the Casey, and one Travis Uriah Long. Unfortunately, although the combat sequences are good, the ending leaves this reader with the sense that the entire novella was in fact a setup for a rather bad pun.
"Beauty and the Beast" is David Weber's first contribution to the anthology, in which he tells the story of how Honor Harrington's parents met. Beowulf is famous throughout the Honorverse for its prowess in biotechnology, and the Beowulfan code of ethics has been critical in reassuring societies traumatized by Earth's Final War that genetic engineering can be done without creating the monstrous supermen that had perpetrated the horrors of that particular conflict. Among the leading families of Beowulf are the Benton-Ramirez y Chou, whose scion Jacques is one of the first people Alfred Harrington meets upon arrival from the Manticore system.
At that moment Alfred Harrington isn't exactly at his best, and the long journey between worlds is only one of the reasons. He's getting used to being a commissioned officer in the Star Kingdom's Navy after years of being a gunnery sergeant in their Marines, and the reason for that change of branch of service is something he'd rather forget. Even if it weren't under a seal of secrecy, there are some things so terrible to recall overmuch.
Yet even when he tries to block the memories of those terrible events from his conscious mind, they continue to drive him in his new career path, as a naval officer and a physician. He wants to specialize in neurosurgery, and specifically in the development of artificial neuronic nets for people with brain damage. And although he tells his advisor he's interested in the long-term effects of prolong, the anti-agathic protocols of the Honorverse, she can tell that it's not the real reason for his driving need to research this subject. So he admits that he wants to develop treatment protocols for people wounded by neural disruptors -- and that it's personal.
Meanwhile, Allison Benton-Ramirez y Chou is dealing with the anger of a friend who strongly disapproves of this outworlder whom he sees as having taken a slot from a more deserving student. The more Iliescu objects to Alfred Harrington, the more interesting he becomes in Allison's eye. And then a chance intersection of their paths leads to them quite literally running into each other on the campus.
Meanwhile Allison's brother Jacques is involved in some very difficult business -- the Audobon Ballroom, a shadowy group of opponents to genetic slavery whom many call terrorists because of their willingness to use violence against Mesa and its various agents. Officially he has nothing to do with anyone attached to that notorious group, but his deep sense of obligation and even honor drives him to do what he can to help strike a blow against those who would turn human beings into fungible commodities. His work has attracted the attention of certain individuals who would like nothing more than to neutralize him, and are willing to use any lever they can find to do so. Including his beloved sister.
Hence a staged accident and a "rescue" by an ambulance that is nothing of the sort. Except these people failed to reckon on one very important thing -- the resolve of one Alfred Harrington when he realizes this woman is in danger. Not only does he have his Manticorean Marine combat training, he also has a strange talent of mind, a sort of empathic sense that makes him hyper-aware of Allison's emotions and sensations. Thus armed, he plunges in to make a rescue that anyone else would have considered impossible.
David Weber's second contribution, "The Best Laid Plans," concerns Honor herself. While the first David Weber story in this anthology was "how I met your mother," this one is the story of how Honor met her treecat companion, Nimitz. It's the story of two young and headstrong people, one human, one treecat.
Honor had wanted to go up near the dam to pick flowers for her mother, and thus had stretched the truth just a little with her father to gain permission to go up there alone. She'd learned the hard way not to try to lie outright, not with her father's peculiar empathic sense. But she's also learned how to gloss over certain awkward facts and shape the truth to her purposes, and anyway she knows how to handle herself out there in the wild.
Meanwhile, one Laughs Brightly and his younger brother Sharp Nose of the Bright Water Clan are out and about on a foraging expedition of their own. A neolithic people who have by and large concealed the extent of their technological sophistication and even their intelligence, they are looking for golden ears, an herb they are unable to cultivate and must gather in the wild. Although normally quite agile in the trees, they allow themselves to become preoccupied with observing Honor as she goes about her efforts. And some of the trees through which they climb have become weakened by insect attacks.
Now we have an injured treecat, right near the den of one of its evolutionary distant kin, the snow hunter, what humans call a peak bear. And they're as protective of their young as terrestrial bears, and while they may not be as agile and supple as a hexapuma, they more than make up for it with sheer bulk.
Honor's hardly aware of what she's doing, the responses are so well drilled into her. She shoots the adult peak bears, then gives the treecats what aid she can. And then, while she's waiting for help, everything changes.
The final story, "Obligated Service" by Joelle Presby, gives us a window into the lives of the Grayson lower classes, and particularly the families who are seen as black sheep, even outcasts. Claire Bedlam Lecroix had a lot going against her when she got the coveted slot at Manticore's Saganami Island academy. As if it weren't bad enough that she was from the notoriously ultra-conservative Burdette steadholding, her family is headed by an unstable youth who fell into the job simply because he was the only male.
Claire's uphill struggle is complicated by two of her cousins working at a strip joint in the orbital shipyard where she's currently posted. As a passed midshipwoman desperately trying to make ensign, Claire can't afford the damage to her reputation that would come from having her association with them known. So she's struggling to get by, which has finally gotten a little easier now that she's figured out how to keep Noah from cleaning out her bank account to cover for his indiscretions.
And then everything goes to hell. As they're returning from a cruise to Masada, Grayson's hereditary enemy, the station is attacked. Particularly hard-hit are the rest-and-recreation areas, including the titty bar where her cousins used to work. Keeping busy is the only thing that keeps her from being crushed by grief -- until her brother suddenly revokes her permission to work outside the family, thanks to his latest paternal figure, an ultra-conservative preacher who's convinced him that his "sin" of letting Claire slip the bonds of her assigned role has brought this misfortune down upon the family. How can she turn things back around and salvage what seems to be an impossible situation?
The ending really drives home the importance of what Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other women of the Seneca Falls Convention fought so hard to win for women. When a woman is completely subordinated to and dependent upon a man, she can only hope that he is a good man. If he is a bad man, whether brutal or simply feckless or irresponsible, her life will be a living hell and she has no legal recourse. And that is what makes the excesses of the current crop of radical feminists so frightening -- it's creating a backlash in which we are actually hearing talk about turning the clock back not just to the 1970's, or the 1950's, but all the way back to the 1800's, to a time when women could not vote, could not hold property in their own names, could not generally function in society except under the authority of one or another man, when even a widow was appointed a male guardian because it was assumed she could not take care of her affairs on her own.
Overall, it's a pretty good addition to the Honorverse canon, even if a couple of the stories are rather weak. But I think that the two Webers and Presby's story more than make up for the weaknesses of the others.
Review posted October 9, 2014.
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