Mission of Honor by David Weber
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Although this book is the latest installment in the main Honor Harrington series, and thus is the direct sequel to At All Costs, it also continues the storylines developed in the two side series which have been spun off, and thus can be regarded as a sequel to some degree to both Storm from the Shadows and Torch of Freedom. Most importantly, it continues the shift developed in those two books away from the conflict with Haven which had been the central characteristic of the early Honor Harrington books, and toward the growing conflict with Mesa and with the rotting but still dangerous Solarian League.
In this novel we have the unfolding consequences of the confrontation between Admirals Michelle Henke and Josef Byng which was the climax of Storm from the Shadows. The Solarian League has taken it for granted that they are the largest and most powerful star nation in the galaxy, and that all the lesser star nations, which they deride as neobarbarians (reminiscent of the Roman Empire's contempt for all other political entities, a disdain that continued even as the Empire was crumbling from within and growing steadily less able to project power beyond its own borders or even maintain order within them), exist at their whim and on their sufferance. After all, the SLN is supposed to be the largest and most powerful space navy in the galaxy, able to crush any opponent.
But now Byng has been not just defeated, but outright obliterated. And worse, there's evidence that the Manticorian force wasn't even using its armaments at their full potential. They pulled their punch, whether in hopes of sparing at least some ordinary spacers the fruits of their commanding officer's arrant stupidity, or simply to hide the true extent of the power of the weapons they are carrying.
In any case, the Sollie government -- the real governing powers, not the official governing bodies that exist primarily for show -- are absolutely infuriated and demand that this upstart star nation be put back in its place. Not only to eliminate the threat the Star Kingdom currently poses, but to eliminate the potential threat that might exist should any other star nation out there get ideas above their station.
Except their attempt to teach the Star Kingdom a lesson works about as well as the previous confrontations have. The biggest problem Manticore now faces is how to care for the enormous numbers of POW's they have taken from the surrendered ships, numbers so great as to strain their ability to adequately provide even the most minimal necessities of physical existence, let alone things generally considered to be the obligation of a decent nation to provide POWs, especially those of rank.
Although this novel is supposed to be part of the mainline Honor Harrington sequence, Honor herself puts in surprisingly few appearances, mostly in a senior advisory capacity. And while there are almost certainly some readers who will be disappointed and who desperately miss the days when Honor took command of a fighting force and went into battle, I find that I actually liked it better this way. A big part of it is the whole business of the three-way marriage with Hamish and Emily Alexander which really put my teeth on edge about At All Costs. The whole issue of the nature and definition of marriage aside, it's simply bad art to suddenly change the rules in order to let a character have what they couldn't have, especially when the tension of not being able to have whatever it was they wanted was such an important part of previous books. So every time she'd show up and there would be some reference to her peculiar domestic arrangements, it would just grate on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. Having her appear less and the spotlight shift to other characters in the wider fictional universe really helps enable me to keep reading without being overwhelmed by the urge to fling the book against the wall.
But not enough, because then there's the matter of Mesa's super-secret stealth attack intended to put the Star Kingdom out of the running. It sparked a huge discussion on Baen's Bar about the mechanics of the attack and of the space stations that were the subject of it, such that it even led to two authorial statements from Himself on the subject.
Yet even authorial fiat can only carry things so far, and as Marion Zimmer Bradley was wont to say, suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until dead. And quite honestly, the idea that all of each habitable planet's manufacturing capacity should have been concentrated in a single space station strains my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Leaving aside the practicalities of having such a wide variety of processes concentrated in a single physical plant, it strikes me as simply ridiculous that a nation, particularly one that has been at war almost continually for the last forty years, would concentrate all its vital industries so handily for an enemy to come and destroy it. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket.
In fact, it looks very much as if the author decided that he wanted to strike such an overwhelming blow to Manticore and her allies that things would look completely hopeless at the end of this book, and then just created the necessary situation without thinking about the practicalities. Presumably so that Manticore could be the underdog once again in the struggle, after having shown themselves capable of exerting overwhelming force against even the most powerful potential enemy in the galaxy.
If that is true, then we have a major problem of the Heavy Hand of the Author becoming visible in an intrusive manner. The principles of good art demand that all elements of a work of fiction should appear to grow organically in response to forces within the imagined world in a logical and plausible fashion. When the author blatantly sets up a situation in order to move the plot forward in the desired direction, it undermines the reader's sense of reading about another world as real as our own and instead draw's the reader's attention to fiction as made thing, with resultant damage to willing suspension of disbelief.
And that would be very unfortunate, because I've really enjoyed the Honor Harrington series, particularly its combination of wide-screen interstellar action and adventure in the tradition of the old pulp space operas alongside very careful consideration of the practicalities of how the imagined sciences and technologies would actually work and the sociological effects they would have on the people using them. In fact, it was that carefully logical development of the world on its own terms that makes this absurd notion of the whole trisystem's industry concentrated into three vulnerable space stations, solely so their destruction could leave the Star Kingdom in a seemingly hopeless situation, so completely annoying.
That said, I'm not going to immediately abandon the series out of annoyance at this problem. I do like the rest of the imagined world enough that I'll probably keep reading the next few books and see if they get back on track.
Review posted September 10, 2010.
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