The Honor of the Queen by David Weber
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station, Honor took on a Havenite covert warship with a much smaller ship and won in spite of overwhelming odds. As a result she won considerable renown, but she was still a relatively junior captain, and it was still officially peacetime, even if the Star Kingdom of Manticore had been engaged in various forms of covert and proxy warfare with the People's Republic of Haven for the past several decades. So Honor has spent the time since that event paying her dues, shepherding convoys of freighters through the troubled systems of the Silesian Confederation, a star nation that is steadily declining toward becoming a failed state.
But that period of marking time won't last forever, for Haven's activities in the covert war are steadily becoming more aggressive, and it's only a matter of time before the cold war turns hot. The leadership of the Star Kingdom of Manticore has decided not to wait quietly until that happens, and has been looking for allies. Among the potential allies they are courting is the world of Grayson, founded by the Church of Humanity Unchained. These religious separatists started with a doctrine that technology was a moral and spiritual trap, and traveled over five hundred light years on the slender hope that God would lead them to a habitable world where they could create a society in which human beings would live as God intended, working with their hands and living upon the fruits of honest labor. However, the beautiful world to which they fled proved to be a deathtrap full of heavy metals and toxins, and only through constant application of the very technologies they had planned to put behind them forever were they able to survive.
The leadership dealt with this conflict by revising their central doctrine so that technology per se was not evil, but only the way in which it was used on old Earth was morally enslaving. This new doctrine made it morally permissible to use technological means to provide for basics of life such as clean water and foods free of arsenic, mercury and other toxins that filled the natural environment of Grayson. However, not everybody was satisfied with that compromise, and those who considered it to be a moral sell-out became increasingly disaffected the longer they felt their dissent was being ignored. In time the faction who called themselves the Faithful turned violent, threatening the survival of everybody.
The Moderates who supported the compromise with technology were able to avert catastrophe, but it had become clear that they and the Faithful could not share a single planet. Rather than engage in mass murder in hopes of killing an idea by slaughtering the people who held it, they cut a deal. They would refit the original colony ship and give it to the Faithful, under the condition that the Faithful would use it to remove themselves to a nearby star and remain in that system.
Although the Faithful found the planet of Masada more hospitable to human life, such that it would be possible to live a pre-Industrial existence upon it, the burning anger which they have cherished against the Moderates of Grayson has made it impossible for them to fully set it aside. Far from it, they have become obsessed with the notion that God will eventually lead them to return in triumph to Grayson and crush the ungodly once and for all. However, they do not go so far as to believe that God will use supernatural means to accomplish it, which means that they must retain enough technology to use spaceships to travel the distance and advanced weapons to crush and destroy their enemies.
Although Masada has the most extreme theocracy, with dietary laws, ritual cleansings for sin, and the rejection of the New Testament on the grounds that Jesus couldn't be the Christ if his coming failed to prevent the development of abominable technology, this does not mean that Grayson doesn't take its religion seriously. Grayson is still a theocracy and religious law still forms the foundation of its civil law. Most critically for Honor and the other women of the Royal Manticorean Navy, Grayson law holds very strongly to the Biblical principal that the man is the head of the woman. The women of Grayson are perpetual minors, barred from holding any responsibility in their society and under the authority of one or another adult male throughout their lives. Thus the presence of Honor Harrington, a woman in a position of authority over men, has the potential to be an affront to the values they hold dear. It will be necessary for everyone in the delegation to step extremely carefully to avoid alienating their potential allies.
If the political and cultural situation faced by the Manticoreans on Grayson is a potential time bomb, they also have to face treachery. Haven is on the lookout for allies as well, and when they discovered that the SKM has been making overtures to Grayson, they began operating on the old aphorism that the enemy of one's enemy is one's friend. They've buddied up with the Faithful of Masada, providing them with modern starships and technical advisors to teach them how to run them. And worse, they've made connections with agents on the ground in Grayson's capital, agents who can make attacks on the Manticorean officers while they're in the midst of delicate negotiations with Grayson's leadership -- and maybe just be able to blame everything on the Manticoreans.
As a result, a considerable amount of this novel deals with culture shock and political infighting, something that's very different from what Honor's been used to up to that point, something that plays on her insecurities about interpersonal relationships. However, that should not be taken to mean that there are no dramatic space battles in this novel. Not only are there some truly spectacular ones, but there is also an atrocity that provokes Honor so intensely that her reaction nearly puts an end to her Naval career.
Since this is only the second volume in the Honor Harrington series, we are still seeing both the character and the universe in a relatively unformed state. Although many readers have complained that Honor has the only weaknesses of her strengths -- that is, her tendency to take her strengths to such extremes that they can actually become liabilities -- in this novel she still has significant problems with negative self-image which undermine the self-confidence which is absolutely essential to someone who must make command decisions and live by them. And then there's the matter of that temper. It may only come out in the direst of situations, and there was plenty of reason to be righteously indignant, but it was controlling her, and it nearly brought her low.
Review posted September 2, 2010.
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