Crown of Slaves by David Weber and Eric Flint
Published by Baen Books
Cover art by David Mattingly
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
The Honorverse, the world of Honor Harrington, is a story that has grown in the telling. It began as an effort to retell the Napoleonic Wars sea story as space opera, but with a twist: the protagonist would be a woman.
As the first several Honor Harrington novels proceeded, this plan seemed to work well enough. But David Weber had succeeded too well: he had created a world so rich and detailed that people wanted to know more about it, the "stories behind the stories," of the characters and planets that are only glimpsed at a distance like Tolkien's "far trees" that may at most become "nearer trees."
So Jim Baen, founder and original publisher of Baen Books, decided that the best way to handle all these requests would be to authorize an anthology of stories set in the Honorverse but not dealing with Honor herself. It succeeded so well it became the first in a series of such anthologies, including novellas and even short novels both contemporary to the main storyline and set decades or even centuries earlier.
However, they soon became the victim of their own success. Enough of them tied closely with the mainline Honor Harrington storyline that it began to grow unwieldy. At All Costs was so huge and complex that many readers had trouble following it. Had Weber lost control of his storyline? Worse, had he become "too big to edit"? He was Baen's top-selling author, the one whose predictable sales made it possible for the company to take risks on unknown authors, to support their careers as they built an audience (for instance, by pairing them with established name authors for collaborations). Could the editorial staff have become so hesitant to mess with success that they no longer held his feet to the fire in regard to story quality?
Jim Baen decided the best way to deal with this problem was to break out the major side storylines into their own sub-series. The first to go in that direction was the story of the war against the genetic slavers of Mesa.
In David Weber's original master plan for the Honorverse, the genetic slavery storyline wasn't supposed to even emerge until the storyline moved to Honor's children (much as the Abolitionist movement in the Primary World was the work of the children of the Napoleonic Wars generation). However, two major things happened to move the process forward.
First, certain persons made it clear they would never speak to him again if they killed off Honor or her treecat Nimitz. Enough that Baen's editorial staff became concerned about the viability of the series if the original master plan were followed. So Weber's original plan for the grand finale of Honor's storyline had to be 86ed and Honor would remain in the story, if primarily a political admiral rather than a fighting commander.
Second, when Eric Flint was invited to contribute to one of the Honorverse anthologies, he wanted the sort of story in which an agent of Haven could be a hero. Weber suggested an effort to foil a plot by agents of Mesa and its principal commercial front, Manpower, which sells genetic slaves (basically, clones raised and trained for particular lines of work). The result was "From the Highlands," in which widower Anton Zilwicki must team up with an agent of the very nation that killed his wife Helen to rescue their daughter, Helen the younger, from a group of genetic super-soldiers in Mesan employ.
This novel is the continuation of both that storyline and "Promised Land" in Service of the Sword, which introduced Judith and her daughter Ruth. As the novel begins, Princess Ruth is preparing to set off on a courtesy visit to Erewhon for the funeral of a major figure in the fight against genetic slavery. Technically Ruth is a princess only by courtesy, since she was sired by the Masadan privateer who kidnapped her mother and forced her into concubinage. When Prince Michael married Judith, he adopted Ruth, but with the proviso that she would not be in the line of succession.
All the same, the Star Kingdom's enemies are not likely to concern themselves overmuch with the finer points of Manticorean succession law. They are more interested in finding levers to use against the Queen, and they are well aware of just how tight the House of Winton is. Princess Ruth may not be an heir to the throne in Landing, but she is someone her father and her aunt would be willing to fight for, even go to war for.
So there are some intense discussions about the problem of ensuring her security on the trip, and especially on Erehwon itself. Discussions that fire the imagination of the young princess and her companion, Anton's adopted daughter Berry. They're of that age when their minds are full of romantic notions from stories and holo-vids, so they hit on the bright idea of switching places.
Except they don't look that much like each other, and they live in a high-tech world with easy DNA scanning that can pick up Ruth's distinctive Grayson/Masadan genetic signature. So it's not going to work like The Prince and the Pauper or the other classic stories where royal and commoner swap places -- but it can still be made to work, thanks to nanotech and a little misdirection.
So off our bright young things are, along with a respectable company of adults that includes a fair-sized bodyguard detail. Berry's enjoying the fun of pretending to be a princess, and doesn't really appreciate the stakes of what she and her best friend are doing.
Erehwon is small as star nations go, holding a single system. But it's a valuable system, thanks to its wormhole junction, which makes it an important crossroads of interstellar travel. And the crime families who originally settled it to facilitate their money-laundering operations (hence Maytag, their planetary capital) have found it also lucrative for legitimate business activities, particularly tourism and hospitality.
So once Ruth and Berry have paid their respects to the fallen hero of the battle against slavery, they want to visit The Wages of Sin. It's a giant space station casino, which introduces additional complications for their security detail. Some problems can be finessed by discussion with the Erehwonese managers (for instance, her security detail are permitted to retain their sidearms). Others are so integral to the structural limitations of a space station that they cannot be.
And those are the things their opponents are counting on. Because the Masadan irreconcilables view the escape and continued freedom of "their" women as a very personal affront. And they intend to rectify that situation and not only are they willing to do whatever it takes, they're willing to enlist whatever allies they can find.
And those allies include the Scrags, the descendants of the genetic super-soldiers who were such major players in Earth's Final War that the resultant taboos against biotechnology have hampered legitimate medicine's ability to help the ill and injured. Hated and despised by society, these men have returned the favor, viewing ordinary humanity as contemptible inferiors who ought to be under the heel of their genetic betters. So when Gideon Templeton and his crew offer them a place in a mission to recover a stray, they're happy to convert to the doctrines of the Church of Humanity Unchained (Defiant), if somewhat hazy on doctrine and practice.
And it's this gang of fanatics that descend upon the Wages of Sin. Fanatics are the most dangerous sort of opponents, because they're not constrained by the usual sorts of considerations, like getting away after they've done the deed. While recapturing Princess Ruth would be the preferable course, they're willing to die to kill her if that's what it takes to ensure she does not remain at liberty.
However, Ruth and Berry's little game of switched identities has confused matters just enough to enable the few survivors of the slaughtered security detail to get the real princess to safety. Meanwhile, Berry draws upon all her childhood memories of life in the streets and tunnels of Old Chicago to lead her erstwhile captors on a chase through a former slave ship, a vessel that may become an instrument of hope for millions of genetic slaves all over human space.
Because there's a world out there, called Verdant Vista on Manpower's official documents, but Congo by everyone aware of the hideous conditions that prevail there. A world that a few daring rebels hope to transform into a homeworld for the despised and rejected.
It's interesting to see the difference in focus and feel in a novel that was written in David Weber's world and doubtless with significant input from him, but almost certainly primarily written by Eric Flint. Take for instance the lengthy infodumps about genetic slavery and more generally about the history of slaving and slave revolts. David Weber has had a long history of infodumps on the imagined technologies of his warfighting machines, and of making them so fascinating to read that you don't feel they're infodumps. But he rarely does the Wise Old Man Lecture on social and political issues of his worlds.
Eric Flint's background is heavily steeped in politics, which can be seen clearly in his Ring of Fire series (on which David Weber has also collaborated), and given his extensive background in history and literature, I feel confident in identifying these sections as his ideas as well as his composition, as Du Havel explicates the sad history of slave revolts and how they so often engender bloodbaths, and either lead the former masters' allies to crush them with ruthless force, or for the former slaves to develop a tyranny in an effort to hold off their enemies.
But Du Havel hopes to break the cycle, if he can just create the necessary conditions that will permit his fellow former slaves to concentrate on building a solid nation for themselves before they have to defend it. Breathing room, he calls it -- and he hopes that Congo is just far enough away and his cause has strong enough allies that it could be doable.
It's an interesting side branch of a fascinating and complex world. My biggest reservation is how genetic slavery as presented really seems to be far too much historical chattel slavery recycled In Space, without the level of attention to making it work that we see in the combat technology Weber developed for his world. Yes, there's the element of cloning and genetic engineering -- but even the Mesans themselves have tacitly acknowledged that a lot of it is a fraud intended to make their product more appealing to customers.
But even more noticeable if you think about it is the complete absence of the application of scientific psychological conditioning to the upbringing of their genetic slaves. Even the so-called "phenotypical conditioning" of some slave lines is nothing more than systematic physical and mental abuse to break their subjects, rather than anything even remotely comparable to the deepteach that Union uses on azi in CJ Cherryh's Cyteen. It's almost like they're doing it purely because they enjoy being as nasty as possible, like cartoon villains.
Now it's possible that the powerful taboos that arose throughout humanity in the aftermath of Earth's Final War have also prevented the development of effective psychosurgery systems along the lines of Reseune's deepteach techniques (just as AI has not developed much beyond current expert systems and intelligent agents). And given that this book is the first in a sub-series, it's quite possible that the reason for the abominable cruelty is explained, and it's not just "for the eevulz."
Buy Crown of Slaves from Amazon.com
Review posted October 15, 2016.