The Short Victorious War by David Weber
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
For decades the People's Republic of Haven has been propping up its own tottering economy by plundering other systems. However, the problems inherent to robbing Peter to pay Paul have reached crisis proportions, the indefinitely put-off debts have finally come due, and the corrupt leadership is desperate. They decide that they have no other choice but to directly attack the Star Kingdom of Manticore, hoping for a quick and decisive victory that will enable them to plunder this wealthy star nation. Except they seem to overlook the fact this course of action will put them on a direct collision course with the finest of the Manticoran Navy.
Meanwhile, Honor Harringon is recovering from the injuries she suffered during her actions at Grayson in The Honor of the Queen. It has been a long and difficult recovery because she is unable to benefit from regeneration therapies and must instead turn to advanced cybertechnology. But the marriage of organic flesh and electronics is an awkward one at best, and she struggles to master her sophisticated electronic eye. When the increasing tensions lead to her being called back into service, she faces reservations about her fitness to return to duty. Will these problems suddenly crop up during a crisis, making it difficult or impossible for her to react smoothly and effectively?
And her medical issues aren't her only problems. She also faces more direct enmity. Her forceful manner in resolving her previous adventures has angered more than a few powerful people, and they are glad for any opportunity to do her harm -- even if doing so would end up actually doing harm to the Navy's level of readiness.
All the same, she is now the captain of the battleship Nike, flagship of Admiral Sarnow. As such, this places her in a criticial position, and the admiral trusts her implicitly. Furthermore, her new executive officer is her old Academy roommate, Michelle Henke. A cousin to the Queen, this scion of the highest levels of Manticorean aristocracy had helped the young Honor, who was of completely yeoman stock and had never moved in such rarified circles, to overcome significant self-confidence problems and interact with her social superiors (although not sufficiently to enable her to deal more decisively with Lord Pavel Young, a festering sore that will become critical in this volume).
While Honor is in the Hancock system, guarding the frontier, romance blossoms with another navy officer. His kindness begins to wash away the lingering mental poisons of her horrible encounter with the rapacious Lord Pavel Young, and the subsequent encounter with a seemingly sympathetic fellow midshipman who was in fact one of Young's buddies and was only feigning romantic interest in order to get her to relax her guard and put herself into a position in which she would be particularly vulnerable -- and then ridiculed her behind her back to his real circle of friends. In the development of Honor's relationship with Paul Tankersley we see some real character development, both in terms of David Weber's delineation of Honor's character as a literary artifact and Honor's own personal growth within the Secondary World of the novel.
Unfortunately, things seldom keep going well for Honor Harrington. Her hated enemy Pavel Young has finally escaped a round of bad assignments and gotten himself assigned to a ship being sent to Hancock. And even worse trouble is following Young's trail. As the government of the People's Republic of Haven becomes increasingly unstable and thus desperate, they are about to strike with a force stronger than anything they've ever dared to use. Thus Helen Zilwicki goes into a hopeless situation, not knowing until it's far too late that her force is outnumbered and outgunned so badly.
It's interesting to read this novel while considering it not only as itself, but as part of the developing tapestry of the Honorverse. The first two novels could be treated pretty much as stand-alones. Thus the author just had to concentrate on conveying the necessary information to tell that story. However, with the third book, the accumulation of backstory has become sufficient that he now has to start considering the problem of balancing the newcomer's need for backfill in order to understand the established relationships between the various characters and polities against not boring the established readers, who at most will want a little refreshing of the more obscure (and relevant) aspects of the complex interlocking personal and professional relationships that are so important to this fictional universe.
In addition, there's the tension between what makes a good read for those who read for action and those who read to sink into a world and savor it. David Weber has been criticized for the extent of his infodumps about various aspects of his world, particularly the technical and political. Some readers find them boring and start skimming, champing at the bit all the time in impatience to get to the next action scene. They're not interested in the effects of prolong (anti-agathic technology of the Honorverse) upon the generational structure of Manticorean society and the social changes that result in it -- they just want to see Honor lead her forces into battle, and the idea that these characters may be putting three hundred or more years of life on the line rather than the mere fifty or seventy our servicemen and women are laying on the line is of at most peripheral interest to the action reader. But others want to understand the underpinnings of how the world works, and will spend hours on Baen's Bar debating the implications of various technologies, whether military, medical or computer, upon the society and the shape of the storyline.
Because the Honorverse exists within a literary tradition that has been developing for almost a century, David Weber also likes to include some in-jokes for the alert, particularly names for bit characters. If you've read a lot of classic sf, particularly A.E. Van Vogt, E.E. "Doc" Smith and the like, you'll get some good laughs. But if you haven't, they're so unobtrusive that you'll probably pass right over them -- much better than feeling like the cool kids are all talking over your head again.
But there's also plenty of the high-energy, high-body-count space battles that so many readers crave. Although David Weber has been accused of writing so-called combat porn, with the effects of battle upon the human body described in tender loving detail so that we can better appreciate the heroism of the characters, the most devastating battle in this novel -- Helen Zilwicki's hopeless last stand -- is actually handled in a surprisingly understated way. Instead of seeing her ships and crews being ripped apart, the narrative focuses almost entirely upon the helpless rage of her husband Anton as he can only watch the doomed effort of his wife, the mother of their beloved daughter, to cover for their escape. And it actually works better for really showing the price of warfare, not just in bodies torn apart, but in how the lives of the survivors are torn as well.
And of course there's the final climactic battle, which is done in a far less restrained fashion. But even then there is a surprising degree of focus upon interpersonal issues -- in this particular instance, the revelation of the true character of Pavel Young as being faced with immediate death strips away the armor of self-delusion and shows him as he really is.
Review posted May 11, 2010.
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