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In Fire Forged by David Weber

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

As the Honor Harrington series became increasingly popular, fans wanted to know more about some of the incidents and places that were only referred to obliquely in the novels. However, these stories typically weren't weighty enough to carry an entire novel, but they would've unbalanced any novel into which they were worked.

As a result, Jim Baen decided to produce an anthology of spinoff stories about other parts of the Honorverse, More than Honor. It proved such a success that it became the first of a series of anthologies, simultaneously giving David Weber the opportunity to permit a few carefully selected professional writers to write in his universe and for him to explore areas of it that might otherwise have had to pass unnoticed.

This volume is the fifth of that series, and two of the three stories in it are direct sequels of stories in the last volume, The Service of the Sword. The first, "Ruthless" by Jane Lindskold, continues the story of Judith, who had been kidnapped from a Grayson freighter as a child and grew up as the unwilling junior wife of a Masadan pirate. Although in that story she was able to successfully escape and to lead a number of other Masadan women to freedom, with the help of a Manticorean task force, the safety of the Star Kingdom of Manticore is not perfect, as she discovers one day when her daughter Ruth proves to be missing.

Thus the title of the story proves to be a pun, because the kidnapping of her daughter brings out that hard and uncompromising part of her that has already faced death once. She is not going to just grieve and get over it. She intends to find her daughter.

Meanwhile Prince Michael, who led the task force that intercepted her desperate flight and brought her and her sisters in bondage to freedom, gets a nasty message: if he wants little Ruth to be safely freed, he must commit an act that will discredit him. It doesn't have to be a big one, just something that will produce a sufficiently embarrassing scandal that people will no longer look up to him as a good example, but will instead regard him as something of a laughingstock, a spoiled royal of the sort we here in the Primary World have become all too familiar with over the past several decades.

However, Prince Michael isn't one of those spoiled brats with titles. He's a military man tried by fire, and he possesses a genuine sense of honor and a willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to preserve that honor. On the other hand, he also has a strong sense of humanity, and is not the sort of person who can casually sacrifice an innocent child who has no part in the quarrels of adults. So he is torn between the need to protect the reputation of the Royal Family and thus the policies of his sister the Queen, and his love for a little girl who came into the universe in a very unpleasant situation and doesn't deserve to be thrown back into it.

So when Judith sees him start to quaver, she makes it clear that she is not going to allow him to sacrifice his reputation for Ruth's sake. Which only makes him more determined that they will not sacrifice that little girl. And a prince has at his disposal investigative abilities far beyond the ordinary, by which he begins to piece together an intricate conspiracy intended to shift Manticorean public opinion against the alliance with Grayson. A situation that makes things even more difficult, because if they strike prematurely, they will only get the expendable pawns, not the real masterminds of the operation.

It's as high-tension as the first installment of the story of Judith and Prince Michael. However, it made me want to re-read Crown of Slaves, because in that novel I got the distinct impression that Ruth (by this time an honorary princess as a result of her mother's marriage), had been tubed after Judith's rescue, her prenatal development held in suspension while Judith dealt both physically and mentally with her changed situation. But it's also possible that there is in fact no actual textual evidence for such a situation, and it was entirely speculation on Baen's Bar.

The second story, Timothy Zahn's "An Act of War," brings back Charles Navarre, the con artist from "With One Stone." He's got yet another technological gizmo that sounds wonderful on paper, but in practice will prove somewhat less than stellar due to practical limitations. In this case, it's a cloaking device -- think the cloaking devices used by the Romulans and Klingons in Star Trek, except that it's done with a complex of sensor arrays that manipulate the data other ships' sensory arrays will be picking up.

Except there's one small problem -- while it works quite well in fooling merchant ships, which have relatively simple sensor arrays, it doesn't work so well against naval vessels, which typically have much more sophisticated sensors and better computers to process the incoming data. However, Charles is confident that he can keep up the charade long enough to fool Citizen Secretary Saint-Just of the People's Republic of Haven, and bilk his government of a substantial amount of money.

And then the testing protocol takes them to the boundary between the Andermani Empire and the Silesian Confederation, a notoriously lawless region of space full of pirates and other troublemakers. There they intend to have a little encounter, just enough to cause some trouble -- except that the irresponsible Captain Tyler has an agenda of his own, and it's on a collision course with Herzog von Rabenstrange of the Andermani Imperial Family.

There's a certain wry humor in this story, of the sort we see whenever a crooked character proves to be too clever by half and outwits himself. There are also some in-joke references to anime and other science fiction series for the alert, but these are woven in deftly enough that they don't create the sense of having one's head talked over to those not in the know.

David Weber's own contribution, "Let's Dance," is almost a novel in its own right, and in earlier days probably would've been published as a stand-alone volume, albeit a very slender one. But in modern markets, a novel under about 100,000 words simply isn't commercially viable, so it has to be published as part of a collective work.

The story of Honor Harrington's unpleasant encounter with space pirates and slavers in Silesian space while commanding officer of the HMS Hawkwing has been referred to in the novels, so most of us know that it nearly destroyed her career and that it cemented Mesa's hatred of her. But here for the first time we actually get to see the horrors that she witnessed -- which may well explain why she reacted so badly to the discovery of the Masadan abuse of prisoners in Honor of the Queen.

We also get to see her first alliance with the Audobon Ballroom, that organization of former genetic slaves who are condemned as terrorists by some and hailed as freedom fighters by others. Already they have managed to amass substantial resources, including a ship big enough to serve as a troop transport and to believably present itself as a slave ship in order to get inside the slaver base's defenses.

Except there's one huge problem -- one of the most important Silesian leaders who is in the pockets of the slavers just happens to be the very one who's being most positive about improving relations with the Star Kingdom of Manticore. And she is not exactly going to appreciate having the slaver base blown and all kinds of ugly secrets dug out of their computers.

But Honor Harrington's never been someone to shirk away from doing the right thing just because it's not politically expedient right now. That's one of the things that keeps getting her in trouble with the more venal breed of politician -- and at the same time, the very thing that wins her the respect of her crews and the common people.

One of the nice things about this story is how it fits so well with the Silesian storyline that's been developing in Shadow of Saganami and Storm from the Shadows, but doesn't feel like the author projecting backwards elements that developed only in later parts of the story-world's internal chronology. That last is an abiding problem with prequels, almost as bad as the introduction of things that jar against established elements of the storyline. This story feels like it was there all the time, but still manages to show us new things about the events and the characters.

The final piece, "An Introduction to Modern Starship Armor Design," is credited in the Table of Contents to Andy Presby (whom I presume to be the Primary World author of the piece), but within the text to a fictional retired Manticorean naval officer, a Mr. Hegel DiLutorio. It is one of those interesting pieces that can be called "fictional non-fiction" -- that is, an essay written in an in-universe style, unlike the infodump at the end of More than Honor which was clearly written in David Weber's own Primary World voice, which told us how certain parts of the fictional universe developed, but was always aware that it is a self-consistent Secondary World. Although many dedicated fans of the Honorverse will enjoy the very technical discussion of the minutae of military technology in that world, other readers may either find it boring or feel uncomfortable with an essay written as if the world it discusses were as real as our own.

This essay also includes an appendix showing diagrams of armor design. If you want to read the essay, you'll probably want to refer to them for better understanding of the terms under discussion. If fictional non-fiction bores or unsettles you, feel free to skip them as well.

This volume is an excellent addition to the anthology series. Both the non-Weber stories really feel canonical (unlike a few stories in the earlier volumes, which occasionally felt more like authorized fanfic), completely on par with Weber's own contribution. Although I've felt some frustration with the direction the mainline Honor Harrington books have been taking (particularly the three-way marriage with the Alexanders, which really set my teeth on edge), it tells me that there's still plenty to love about the universe, and far from being in danger of getting milked dry, it's got plenty of life left in it.

Table of Contents

  • "Ruthless" by Jane Lindskold
  • "An Act of War" by Timothy Zahn
  • "Let's Dance" by David Weber
  • "An Introduction to Modern Starship Armor Design" by Andy Presby
  • Appendix: Armor Design Figures

Review posted April 30, 2011

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