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Changer of Worlds by David Weber, ed.

Cover art by Carol Heyer

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume is the third in a series of anthologies of stories set in David Weber's Honor Harrington unvierse. As the Honorverse has grown, there has been interest in various incidents and side-stories that aren't really big enough to carry an entire novel by themselves, but are really too involved to work as a sub-plot in another novel. In addition, these anthologies have offered an opportunity for other professional writers to do their own take on various aspects of the Honorverse (it should be noted that these are not open-submissions anthologies after the fashion of the Grantville Gazette and Ring of Fire anthologies in Eric Flint's 1632-verse, nor do they represent any relaxation of Mr. Weber's stance against fanfic set in his universe. Rather, they represent his invitation of proven professionals to do their takes on his universe).

The first selection, "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington," is one of David Weber's own works (three of the four pieces in this anthology are his own writing). Almost a full-length novel in its own right, it deals with Honor's early career, when she was still young, awkward and uncertain of her place in the universe. She's on her graduation cruise, which can make or break her, and her enmity with Lord Pavel Young has followed her. He has not forgotten that she bested him in hand-to-hand combat when he allowed his lusts to get the better of him and tried to sexually assault her in the showers, and he has used his family connections to get her assigned to a ship with an officer who is known to be prejudiced against treecats.

Not that all that many people are extraordinarily knowledgeable or understanding of treecats, particularly off their native world of Sphinx. Because of their appearance and their inability to use human language (this is before they learn sign language), treecats are often regarded as pets rather than people, and thus their presence as a special privilege for their humans, rather than an accommodation for the peculiar bond between two sapient beings. Thus they are often regarded with a certain degree of resentment even by those not particularly opposed to them.

But even after he goes too far in his blatant twisting of everything she does into something nasty and his false accusation of insubordination is revealed for what it is, Honor's troubles aren't over. After all, he's still on the ship, and he's still an officer. And they're cruising in some very dangerous space -- the mess known as the Silesian Confederacy, which is close to being a failed state. A place where there's little difference between privateers and outright pirates, and sometimes they have outside help from those for whom "let's you and him fight" is business as usual.

Thus Honor's first cruise proves to be a baptism of fire, and sets a precedent for her entire career. It's a story very much in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein's juveniles, complete with crusty officers with hearts of gold who run their middies hard to teach them how to keep their heads under fire, but who will not tolerate colleagues who outright abuse them. However, Weber doesn't have the maiden-aunt editors Heinlein had to put up with, so he's free to run up the body count in his space battles and give us an unsparing portrayal of the human cost of victory.

The title story, "Changer of Worlds," takes place between Honor Among Enemies and In Enemy Hands. It is told almost entirely from treecat points of view, delving into their society on its own terms and showing some of their social structure, particularly the role of the memory singers in preserving the culture of a people who have never invented writing, having no need of spoken language as a result of their telepathy, but also the psychology of those who bond with humans.

However, the real meat of the story is the politics behind the decision that the People can no longer entrust their fate to a single world, but must reveal their true sapience and work alongside humans in order to make other worlds their home as well. The process by which they reach this consensus is somewhat different than human politics, since they are telepaths, but they too have to make their case both intellectually and emotionally to those who are not yet convinced -- and the arguments they make are what really bring their culture and values to life.

"From the Higlands," by guest writer Eric Flint, deals with Anton Zilwicki, widower of Manticorian martyr Helen Zilwicki, as he faces a threat to his daughter, named for her mother. However, young Helen's no slouch herself, and doesn't sit around passively waiting for daddy to get her out of trouble. Meanwhile, a pair of principled Havenite secret agents (and yes, there are such beings -- one of the great strengths of the Honor Harrington universe is that it isn't just a simple black hats/ white hats universe, but one in which loyalties are complex) discover that their own superior is working with some of the people the People's Republic most detest -- the genetic slavers of Mesa's Manpower, Inc. and the Sacred Band, a gang of "genetic elite" rather reminiscent of Star Trek's Khan Noonian Singh.

The story takes place in Chicago, capital city of the Solarian League, that is, Earth and her oldest colonies, along with a large number of weak areas of settlement that don't belong to any of the other star nations (the protectorates). Fans of the series have had endless arguments about what nation the vast and corrupt Solarian League is supposed to represent in the Napoleonic-Wars-In-Space schema of the Honorverse -- China, Russia, Turkey and even the modern US translated backwards in time have been suggested. But one thing is for certain -- it's a place redolent of history in a way that none of the other star nations of the Honorverse are (one of the reasons that China is often suggested, since it has the longest written history of any society on the planet, especially now that the oracle bones have been deciphered).

And the history of Old Chicago is particularly of interest to present-day readers because it so clearly goes back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- yet has been forgotten by the time the story takes place. For instance, I am almost certain that the ancient aqueduct/storm drain/sewer through which Helen makes her escape has to be the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, long buried by the accretions of millennia of detrius and subsequent building projects. And there's another scene that broadly hints that the ancient ampitheater is in fact Soldier Field, the Bears' stadium.

But all that is background for the story -- if you recognize the places, you'll get an extra little bit of enjoyment, but if you don't, it's not going to ruin the enjoyment of reading it. That lies in the thrill of the various protagonist striving to untangle their own personal threads in a very troublesome skein of conspiracy and vice.

This story is particularly important to the overall macro-arc of the Honorverse because it altered David Weber's timeline of events. In his original masterplan, Honor would have died a hero in the big battle against Haven, winding up her own story arc, and a generation later the story would be taken up once again with her children, as the real threat of Mesa and Manpower Inc. were revealed (thus roughly paralleling the Primary World history of the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent struggles to end chattel slavery). However, as the Honorverse became Baen's principal moneymaker and fans made it clear that they would not tolerate having Honor killed off, it became obvious that the original timeline would have to be rethought. Thus Eric Flint's story, in which the genetic slavers are major antagonists, became instrumental in accelerating the schedule.

The final installment, "Nightfall," takes us to Haven to the final confrontation between Esther McQueen and Oscar Saint-Just. Rather like S. M. Stirling's "A Whiff of Grapeshot" in the first anthology, More than Honor, which dealt with the Leveler Uprising, it is exceedingly grim, dealing with the ugliness of power politics. As such, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the other three, which were able to shine a light of hope into the darkness and give us the promise that men and women of good will can make a positive difference in the universe, even if it may seem pitifully small in the face of the sheer amount of nastiness and evil out there. The biggest interest for me was wondering if he had picked certain names, particularly Speer and Yazov, for certain characters because of their historical associations (Albert Speer of the Third Reich and Dmitri Yazov of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev), or if they were chance similarities.

In all, this is a fine collection of background bits and side glimpses into the world of Honor Harrington, showing us just what it is that makes it one of the best action-adventure science fiction series around.

Table of Contents

  • "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington" by David Weber
  • "Changer of Worlds" by David Weber
  • "From the Highlands" by Eric Flint
  • "Nightfall" by David Weber

Review posted March 30, 2010.

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