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Honor Among Enemies by David Weber

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Honor Harrington has been in disgrace ever since her disastrous duel with Pavel Young, eleventh Earl of North Hollow, in Field of Dishonor. She didn't want that particular fight, but North Hollow had systematically attacked her friends and family until she had no choice but to confront him. Even then, he had behaved in his usual underhanded way and Honor had only barely been able to avoid a treacherous death. As a result, a number of her old friends have felt that she should not have been driven off to premature retirement on her Graysonian Steadholding, and have been quietly lobbying for some way to be found for her to restore her reputation and be returned to the ranks of serving officers of the Royal Manticorian Navy.

However, in the end simple practicality trumps both appeals to fairness and whatever qualms her opponents may have had about letting her come back. Her star nation needs her services, to the point that it can hardly afford to refuse to overlook that ugly business of a bully and coward who backed her into a fight she didn't want. Manticore's trade in the troubled Silesian Confederacy is falling victim to pirates, some of which may be backed by the People's Republic of Haven, their primary enemies. Although Haven is in the throes of a violent revolution that destroyed its old elite, it is not entirely without teeth. However, Manticore cannot spare its best forces to protect merchant traffic when there is a clearer threat on other fronts.

But just because she's being given a second chance, it doesn't mean that she's going to be given a good chance. In the longstanding literary tradition of the disgraced military leader being given a second chance over the objection of opponents, Harrington is given a grotesquely underpowered force, masquerading as merchants, to go against the pirates. Worse yet, the crew of her ship is riddled with bullies and troublemakers who enjoy making life miserable for others. It is of course the Dirty Dozen in space, and Honor will be hard-pressed to use all her leadership skills to win their respect and turn them into a viable fighting force.

Meanwhile, one of the few decent officers in Haven's Navy is on patrol in the Silesian Confederacy, spying on Manticorian merchant traffic and seeking to trouble it where possible. When he comes across the evidence of a brutal pirate attack on a helpless civilian ship, he must decide whether he is willing to step outside of his orders to do the decent thing. Of course such initiative is often frowned upon in a society such as the PRH, but in times of crisis, sometimes it isn't squashed quite so effectively as it might in other periods.

And then there's the love life of Honor's treecat, Nimitz. In the earlier books it was often easy to think of him rather like a very bright animal that just happens to have opposable thumbs. But in this volume we really get it underlined that treecats are people, if right at the bottom end of the size range for intelligent beings (it's theorized that their large spinal ganglia function as subsidiary brains, rather like coprocessors in a computer, handling specific functions such as motor coordination in order to free up the primary brain for cognitive activities). When Honor's mission puts her in contact with a man who's been adopted by a female treecat, Samantha, the sparks begin to fly. Adoption by male treecats is rare enough, but adoption by females is almost unheard of, particularly when the human partner's career takes the pair offworld. However, as it becomes obvious that their romantic tryst is more than a one-night stand, the issue of offspring raises its head.

This volume of the Honor Harrington saga is a major turning point, since it not only gets her naval career back on track, but it also starts to expand the scope of the novels beyond the conflict between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven. The Silesian Confederation is one of those areas of space that are of interest to a wide variety of powers both political and commercial, and many of them have agendas of their own that do not align neatly on one side or the other of the SKM vs. PRH divide. And this widening of the focus gives the series a more realistic feel, with the sort of depth and richness we see in an actual universe of governments each pursuing its own self-interest.

This volume is also unusual for the presence of a "flip-book" starship explosion in the upper-right-hand corner of the pages. If you start at the beginning and flip through the pages very rapidly, you will see the explosion like a tiny movie, expanding to consume and destroy the starship, then fading to disappear in the background starfield. I was rather astonished to see it, as it brought back childhood memories of some of the Little Big books which included such flip-book sequences in the corners of their pages.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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