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Service of the Sword by David Weber (ed.)

Cover by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Honorverse, the world of Honor Harrington, is a story that has grown in the telling. Originally it was supposed to be a retelling of the Napoleonic Wars in space, Star Wars as told by C. S Forrester (the author of the Horatio Hornblower noels). But so vivid was David Weber's imagined world that readers were soon begging for the stories behind the stories, wanting the "far trees" to become not merely "nearer trees," but to actually approach and climb them.

However, there was not really any way to work more background material into the novels themselves, even if Weber were as much of a master of the fascinating infodump as Robert A. Heinlein. So Jim Baen decided that the solution which had worked so well for the Man-Kzin Wars era of Larry Niven's Known Space universe might be applicable here too. So he contacted a few writers of known ability and commissioned them to write short stories and novellas for an anthology, More than Honor.

It proved such a success that it became the first in a series. Some of the stories in the anthology volumes looked into other parts of the Honorverse, away from Honor Harrington and the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Others, usually written by the Mad Wizard himself, delved into the earlier parts of Honor's life. But all of them were stories too short to stand on their own, yet interesting in their own right.

Service of the Sword is the fourth anthology in the series and continues the proud tradition of expanding upon the world we've come to know and love for its vivid and intricate development. Some of these stories offer new perspectives on familiar characters, while others give us views into parts of society that generally escape the notice of the viewpoint characters from the novels.

The worlds of Grayson and Masada and their differing interpretations of the Church of Humanity Unchained originally appeared in The Honor of the Queen, in which Honor was faced with the challenge of proving herself to a culture which regarded women as perpetual minors, unequal to the challenge of any form of authority. She won the hearts of Manticore's new allies, and the perpetual enmity of the schismatics who called themselves the Faithful.

In that early novel it was easy for the Faithful of Masada to become one-dimensional cartoon villains, simple-mindedly obsessed with their hatreds. However, an entire society cannot live entirely on hate, at least not for more than a generation or two. There has to be some kind of positive glue that holds them together, lest they devolve into a war of the all upon the all. What does such a society look like from the inside? In "Promised Land" we meet brave young Judith, a Graysonian captured by a Masadan freebooter and forced into concubinage. A hellish situation -- but one in which there are glimmers of hope, if only she has the wit and patience to use them.

It helps that her "husband" is so proud of his coup in capturing her alive that he enjoys showing her off. Thus he takes her on his pirate ship on his voyages, which means that he locks her into his cabin while he's doing the legitimate business that provides a front for his real activities. Another woman might sit around and mope at being so confined, or do something foolish and self-destructive, but Judith uses the time to discover everything she can about her captor's weaknesses.

Efforts that she soon broadens to secret researches at home as well. She knows how to play dumb when she needs to, so that if she is discovered, it is assumed that she just stumbled across forbidden things in witless curiosity. Thus she is only mildly disciplined rather than destroyed -- but it also brings her to the attention of a secret organization of women who have been resisting the tyranny of the Faithful's interpretation of doctrine for generations.

Meanwhile, Michael Winton, younger brother of the Queen of Manticore, is struggling with a less than ideal posting. He struggled clear through his Academy training at Saganami Island with the sense that people thought he got his appointment on the basis of pull as a member of the Royal Family rather than upon his ability. And now that he's finally been commissioned as an officer, he's been shunted off to a nice safe assignment where he isn't even going to leave the system.

Just getting a real assignment is an uphill struggle. He has to appeal to one of his teachers, and then convince her that this is a genuine desire to serve, not some foolish youthful desire for adventure and excitement. And even then, shepherding a diplomatic mission to Masada isn't quite like being on a ship of the wall that could end up in a fleet battle against the People's Republic of Haven.

And then Michael finds himself right in the path of Judith's desperate break for freedom not only for herself, but also for a vast number of other women she's helping grab their own freedom. He has to decide whether he's willing to put his career and his reputation in the line for the sake of his principles.

When David Weber created the grav-lance for the climactic battle of On Basilisk Station, it was not yet obvious that this was going to be the first in a very long series of novels, or the basis of a fictional universe of epic scope. It was only after the series became a success that it became obvious that the grav-lance was a major problem in terms of story balance -- it was so powerful that there was nowhere else to take the technology in future volumes.

As a result, he's spent a lot of time and energy trying to permanently bury the idea of the grav-lance, and fans have spent just as much time and energy trying to find ways to resurrect it. In "With One Stone," Timothy Zahn tries to create an alternate application of the grav-lance technology that would get around the Mad Wizard's prohibitions.

Zahn's story begins not long after the events of On Basilisk Station, with the news that someone appears to have deployed an even more advanced version of the grav-lance with which Honor Harrington wreaked havoc upon the camouflaged Peep ship. This new version of the grav-lance isn't just limited to damaging an opposing ship's sidewall -- it can also attack the impeller wedge, the spacedrive by which Honorverse spaceships travel in normal space.

Needless to say, this news arouses considerable consternation among the Manticorian high command, including Admiral Sonja Hemphill, the innovator who led the development and deployment of the grav-lance. They want to find out just what's going on, before one of the other star nations get a jump on them.

And then it's off to Silesia, that fragile star nation on its way to becoming a failed state, and roughly corresponding to Poland in the schema of the Honorverse as the Napoleonic Wars recycled In Space. We have a ship of the People's Republic of Haven dealing with a mysterious individual known only as Charles who has offered them a super-weapon he calls the Crippler.

However, super-weapons have a tendency to work as advertised only in ideal conditions, not to mention having unanticipated failure modes. But a con artist isn't apt to worry about that -- he just wants to convince his marks of its worth well enough that he can collect his money and run before the problems become evident.

On top of this cat-and-mouse game of con artist and mark, we have some bits of truly fantastic imagination, such as the comet transformed into a holiday resort, that remind us that this is a universe of grand expanses and equally grand technological capabilities. And of course there is the conclusion in which the implications of this development of the fictional technologies of space travel in the Honorverse are sorted out -- and we discover that things may be more complicated than they seem, and our heroes may have stumbled onto a deep-cover disinformation program.

We have seen bits of humor gleaming through the grim horrors of total war in John Ringo's Posleen universe. But in his two contributions to the Honorverse, his humorous side shines through full force. The first, "A Ship Named Francis," is a collaboration with Victor Mitchell. Francis Mueller is a cursed ship, maybe not as bad as Herman Wouk's Caine, but crazy enough with its doleful chaplain and its tyrannical exec. And Sean Tyler has just been assigned to it, after being a sickbay attendant in a much larger superdreadnaugt.

No sooner has their cruise begun with the Graysonian chaplain's ask that the Tester spare them a whole litany of horrible Tests, word comes through that a gravitational anomaly has put the cursed Francis off course and in unknown space. As the days go by and the astrogators struggle to get them found again, the crew goes steadily more crazy. A petty officer giggles about how close they may have come to hitting a planet while maneuvering through an unknown stellar system. Crewmembers use a gravity manipulation shaft as a makeshift toboggan run, with attendant injuries.

When the captain gets word, he decides that the problem is a lack of skill in this particular "sport" among his crew and decides to demonstrate the proper technique. Except he's not as good as he thinks, or at least not in as good of practice as he remembers. His wipeout is so spectacular it leaves him with a brain injury and incapacitated. Now there's no one at all to moderate the whims of the executive officer -- who decides that harsh measures are called for.

Measures such as spacing as much as a quarter of the crew, without any sort of court-martial process. It's tricky to finagle their way out of that and still get home more or less in one piece -- but this is a humorous story in a Baen book, so there's going to be something resembling a happy ending, not a grim massacre.

Ringos' second contribution is a solo effort, "Let's Go to Prague." It's the story of some naval intelligence guys who decide on a lark to head off to a newly-captured Havenite naval base, the titular Prague. A place that had been touted as the People's Republic's most advanced base, but which upon investigation turned out to be a complete dump, barely inhabitable -- like a lot of the late, unlamented Soviet Union's masterwork projects.

And of course the hypocrisy is pretty much the same -- officially 100% egalitarian, but in fact highly stratified with the nomenclature skimming off the cream while the common folk struggle to get by, and the black market thrives as people work out informal solutions to things that would take forever to accomplish through official channels. A situation into which our heroes enter looking for something to do -- and create all kinds of havoc.

Given that the author had a career in the military before becoming a writer, one can only wonder what sorts of things he used as inspiration for the antics of his heroes. In some ways they're over the top, yet in others all too believable.

Eric Flint continues the storyline he began developing in the last Honorverse anthology ("From the Highlands") with a prequel, "Fanatic," a story that builds the foundations for A Crown of Slaves, the first novel in the spinoff series about the war with the genetic slavers of Mesa that he and David Weber are writing. Victor Cachat is a driven man, and that can be a good or bad thing in a revolutionary government that has just survived an attempted military coup.

He's tasked with rooting out the network of conspirators that made the Leveller Uprising possible, and to destroy it utterly. And he carries out that task with a ruthlessness that is described in a lot more detail than we usually see in the Honorverse. This story is in many ways also a follow-on to S. M. Stirling's "A Whiff of Grapeshot" from More than Honor, and has much of the same grim tone of a world and society in which there are no heroes, in which all hats are gray in the darkness. It's rough reading at time, and may not be for everyone.

And what would an Honorverse anthology be without a contribution by the master himself? David Weber weighs in with the title cut of the anthology, "The Service of the Sword," which tells the story of Abagail Hearnes, first female Grayson to come to Saganami Island. We glimpsed her in War of Honor, but here she has her opportunity to truly shine.

The piece begins with her meeting with the High Admiral of the Grayson Space Navy, the younger brother of the Protector himself. But given that Abagail is herself the eldest daughter of a Steadholder, one of the feudal princes of Grayson, it is not surprising that she would receive the attention of so august a personage as she is about to undertake her first space cruise. His little talk with her, offering words of wisdom, sets the tone for the entire story, in which she must prove her competence not just against those who are prejudiced against her (and there are plenty of Graysons who still consider a woman unequal to responsibility), but also against those on both sides of the line who would accord her preferential treatment and smooth the path ahead of her, perhaps in hopes of obtaining some preferment of their own.

Worse, she will be doing her middie cruise on a Manticorean ship, right in the midst of the political turmoil of the Janecek Admiralty, which valued political loyalty over proven military competence. And that puts her under the command of one Michael Oversteegen, the very model of the overbred aristocrat who has gotten his command as much as a result of political ties as any actual ability. But given that High Admiral Mayhew dared not object to the assignment, there's nothing Abagail can do but suck it up and do her best in what may well be a hostile environment.

On top of the political issues, there's the culture shock. She'd thought she'd gone through a major adjustment when she arrived at Saganami Island and had to adapt to co-educational facilities which even included mixed-gender combat classes. But that was nothing compared to having to live in the close quarters of a spaceship with a mixed-gender crew. Although she has trouble with one young man who wants to prove himself to making it with the "barbarian ice-queen," she does make a solid alliance with another miidshipwoman which will stand her in good stead on what turns out to be a far from uneventful cruise.

For they are going to a world called Refuge, settled by a religious community that left the People's Republic of Haven as conditions grew steadily less pleasant for religious dissenters. And while the Fellowship of the Elect is not precisely like the Church of Humanity Unchained, Abagail's own faith, its doctrines are "fundamentalist" in a way that leads many Manticoreans to lump the two faith communities together. Oversteegen's too polite to be obvious about it, but Abagail can see his attitudes in his tone and the gaps between his words.

Nobody knows precisely why that remote world with its insular and isolationist colony of religious separatists should have come to the attention of the Manticorean Space Navy. On the surface, everything looks fine, but something, perhaps the correlation of several things that each appear innocuous, has set off an alarm and the Admiralty wants it checked out.

And then Oversteegen lets out the corker -- he thinks that previous visits to Refuge have failed to get information because the religious community was put off by obvious secularists, perhaps by some small failure of courtesy and protocol that would never occur to someone for whom religious faith is mostly symbolic. But he sees in Abagail just the person who can speak their language, who can approach them as a person of deeply-held faith who understands why they hold certain things sacred, and who can get them to trust her enough to talk about what is going on in their region of space.

Now Abagail has a new view of her commanding officer, but it doesn't make everything better. If anything, it makes everything worse, because now she knows this man isn't just an overbred nitwit. Instead, he's actually competent, which makes his affected aristocratic mannerisms all the more grating, as she realizes he never developed any charisma because he didn't need that set of people skills the way Admiral Harrington did. And that discovery makes the days and weeks of routine training while en route all the more painful.

She might have thought differently about her commanding officer if she had known about a certain encounter he had with the young midshipman who had been giving her so much difficulty earlier. It's not precisely wall-to-wall counseling, more in the order of the man-to-man talk from the crusty elder with the heart of gold that Heinlein did so well, particularly in his YA novels. But it makes it clear that Oversteegen both knows what has been going on and wants to put a stop to it without overtly intervening on her behalf, and thus undercutting her ability to grow into the role of an officer.

She at least suspects something of the sort, once the problem middie changes his attitude toward her. But it doesn't really change her attitude -- if anything, it only solidifies her conviction that he despises her as an ignorant, superstitious barbarian, and that giving her the signal honor of leading the landing party is in fact a subtle insult.

But she's not going to say anything, not when being the first female Grayson to enter the military makes her in effect a champion, proving the worthiness of everyone who may follow her. All she can do is demur on the grounds of inexperience, and the possibility that her lowly status may be seen as a subtle insult by the people of Refuge. And when Oversteegen holds firm that yes, she is the most qualified person in this situation, to put the best face on it and do her duty.

And then they stumble upon a secret operation of Manpower, Mesa's commercial front, headed by a disgraced Andermani officer. And thus we get the requisite space battle full of stunning pyrotechnics -- but it also leaves Abagail on the surface in a very awkward position, Manpower's pirates weren't just in orbit, and now she has to deal with over two hundred of these cut-throats who had been using the few surviving members of the Fellowship as human shields.

In all, it's a fine conclusion to a fine novel. Some of the stories may be a little less to the tastes of some readers, but it's a good set of glimpses into other parts of a widely varied universe.

Table of Contents

  • Promised Land by Jane Lindskold
  • With One Stone by Timothy Zahn
  • A Ship Named Francis by John Ringo and Victor Mitchell
  • Let's Go to Prague by John Ringo
  • Fanatic by Eric Flint
  • The Service of the Sword by David Weber

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Review posted October 15, 2016.