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Flag in Exile by David Weber

Cover art by Gary Ruddell

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the conclusion of Field of Dishonor Honor Harrington confronted her nemesis, Lord Pavel Young, now Earl of North Hollow, on the dueling ground. In retribution for his hired murder of her beloved and several subsequent treacheries, including a blatant and cowardly violation of the rules of the code duello so blatant it could not be overlooked, Honor killed him.

Although she was in the right morally in taking him down for good, this was not the politically expedient thing to do. As a result of the outrage her actions sparked, she was barred from the Manticorean House of Lords and effectively shut out of command in the Navy. Suddenly the entire life she had built for herself had come to pieces.

Hoping to rebuild a life for herself, Honor has retreated to her adopted home, the religious world of Grayson, to take up her office as Steadholder in the newly-created Harrington Steading which was given to her at the end of The Honor of the Queen. But while the majority of Graysons regard Honor as a hero for her role in protecting their world from the Masadan extremists backed by Havenite money who tried to invade and impose their own particular version of their religion on the world they once left behind, there are plenty of religious fanatics who see the change Honor represents as a threat to their positions and power. And they are willing to do whatever it takes to destroy her.

It begins with a public insult by the personal chaplain of one of the most fanatically conservative Steadholders. When this is met with calm logic and the rational force of law, both civil and religious, the fanatics turn to violence. They rationalize their actions on religious grounds, believing that God will approve of whatever means they use to achieve what are His ends. It only makes them angrier that although Honor refuses to go through the motions of converting to a religious tradition in which she believes, she respects those who do believe it so thoroughly that she is willing to educate herself on the doctrines of the Church of Humanity Unchained such that she can hang Chaplain Marchant by his own words.

Although David Weber wrote this novel in 1995, it has special power in this post-September 11 world, where we have seen what can happen when religious leaders afraid of modernization decide that murder is an acceptable technique of persuasion. The fact that Weber makes his fanatics a splinter group of a Christian sect (the Church of Humanity Unchained seems to be a mixture of Baptist and Mormon doctrine, with Amish distrust of technology and odd inclusions of Catholic liturgical ceremony and episcopal structure) rather than a Muslim sect actually makes his story stronger, since it does not raise so many questions of caricaturing and stereotyping.

Since the Grayson ecosystem is intensely hostile to human life, its inhabitants have to live under artificial environments simply to survive. This situation has led to the quasi-feudal character of their society, with the Steadholders having nearly absolute authority over their subjects, but it also means a very narrow and confined way of life for the people. In hopes of making it easier for the Graysons to erect suitable living spaces for themselves, Honor has decided to use her considerable wealth to introduce Manticorean building technology, specifically the ability to build very large environmental domes, to Grayson.

And the impending success of Grayson Sky Domes draws the attention of some old enemies as well. Although Honor's own homeworld has rejected her, her enemies have not forgotten her. The People's Republic of Haven is still smarting from the nose-bloodyings that she's already given them, and even in exile they see her as a significant long-term threat, one that they would rather have eliminated now than have to deal with after she has built up the armed forces of her adopted homeworld into something that can project power enough to threaten the Peeps.

We all know the old saying, "an enemy of my enemy is a friend." Or at least, someone to work with, if only while holding one's nose in disgust at what they practice. After all, the conservative faction has already managed to convince themselves that the ends justify the means, and it's a small step to telling themselves that God will forgive them the taint of dealing with outsiders who are willing to remain outsiders, if it will enable them to destroy this outsider who is rapidly ingratiating herself with the people of Grayson.

Once they have morally compromised themselves by rationalizing their acceptance of Peep money, effectively making themselves traitors, it's only a small step to rationalizing the targeting of innocent civilians -- including schoolchildren. In this part Weber gives us a chilling portrayal of how people can convince themselves that it is morally acceptable, even obligatory, to commit monstrously evil acts. Although in our current geopolitical climate we have come to connect religiously-motivated terrorism with radical Islamic fundamentalism, other faiths are not immune from this mental virus. There have even been people who called themselves Christians who took it upon themselves to commit murder in the name of the Lord, all too often in the pursuit of preventing acts they themselves regarded as murder and even twisting the very words of the Lord they claim to serve to justify their actions.

Another author might have written a horror story of the destructive consequences of evil, with a cascade of destruction as people overreact in anger and make things exponentially worse. However, this is David Weber writing Honor Harrington, so you know that things are going to turn out right -- and Jim Baen always had a decided preference for endings in which good clearly triumphs over evil, even if at a horrific cost. So the truth will out, and justice will be done -- and a goodly part of that will be the villains' own attempts to cover their actions and to complete their failed mission blowing up in their faces.

And no, the Peeps who were supporting this act of terrorism haven't been forgotten either. In some universes, "let's you and him fight" may be a productive game to play, but not when Honor Harrington is about.

Review posted March 30, 2010.

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