Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 2005

ex libris reviews

1 August 2005

We drank and I ordered a steak sandwich and it came and I asked if I would be permanently barred from the place if I put ketchup on the meat and she said to be her guest and I did and not more than ten people sitting around us send over imperious disapproving glances. Maybe it was the way I pounded on the upside-down ketchup bottle with the heel of my hand.
Ed Gorman


In This Issue:
All Honor, All The Time

Really, I read quite lot this month that wasn't by David Weber; but I didn't get around to reviewing all of it. Though if you look around, you might find a smattering of Harry Potter right in the middle.

Craig Clarke is back this month with a couple of reviews as well.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Short Victorious War
By David Weber

The People's Republic of Haven has a few problems. First, they've got Imperial Politics syndrome in a big way--the politics of the capital dominate the politics of the star nation. And the basic fact of political life in Haven's capital is that the majority of the population is on the dole, and have been for generations--and the Dolists get nasty if their standard of living isn't maintained. On the other hand, the Treasury is nearly empty. What Haven needs, decide its rulers, is a short, victorious war. They need to go conquer some hapless (but wealthy) star nation and use the proceeds to fund their social programs.

Honor Harrington has faced Havenite forces twice before. In On Basilisk Station she faced a Havenite "Q-ship" (a warship disguised as a freighter); in The Honor of the Queen she saved Grayson from a Masadan attack--an attack funded and led by Havenite "advisors". But this is the first book in which Haven declares outright war on the Star Kingdom of Manticore. It's also the first in which we see a major fleet action; Honor is assigned to be Admiral Mark Sarnow's flag captain in the Hancock system. This is also the book in which she meets the first love of her life, Paul Tankersley, who's one of the officers at the shipyard in Hancock.

So you've got some serious politics, fleet maneuvers, and a little romance, all culminating (as usual) in a slap-bang battle in which Honor has to make the hard decisions yet still come up roses while making herself some series enemies. It's a familiar pattern, but it works.

Field of Dishonor
By David Weber

This is the fourth book in Weber's Honor Harrington series, and in its original edition it had one of the Worst Covers Of All Time. Picture Michael Jackson looking down his nose at you over a pistol pointed in your general direction; this is supposed to be the tall, strongly built Honor Harrington. Gag. However, the edition that's in the stores these days has fixed the problem. Alas, such changes are not retroactive.

Anyway, in this book we get to see what happens when Honor gets really mad. See, there's this guy named Pavel Young, the son of the Earl of North Hollow. He was an upperclassman when Honor was at Saganami Island, Manticore's naval academy, and late one night, angry that she'd spurned a pass he'd made earlier, he tried to rape her. As is all too typical in such cases, Honor kept that detail to herself (though she pretty well wiped the floor with him), and so he went on to be a Manticoran officer.

Honor and Young had another run-in in On Basilisk Station, and then another in The Short Victorious War, after which Young was cashiered. So Young feels he has a score to settle--and he's got his sights on Honor's beloved Paul Tankersly.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that he comes to regret that decision. For a while, anyway.

This book was rather unpleasant on first reading, mostly because some very bad things happen to some folks I'd come to like; on re-reading, though, though, I was fore-armed, and liked it rather better.

Flag in Exile
By David Weber

This is the fifth Honor Harrington book, and it's probably my favorite...except for certain parts which I skipped.

As a result of the way she settled with Pavel Young in the previous book, Honor is on the beach; politically, the Manticoran government can't afford to give her a ship. Not to worry; she bops off to Grayson, where (thanks to her actions in The Honor of the Queen) she is not only a planetary heroine but also Steadholder Harrington, ruler of the newly established Harrington Steading. She's a member of the planetary nobility, and legally has more power over her Steading than any Manticoran noble--the Queen quite possibly not excepted.

On top of that, the Graysons are expanding their navy as quickly as they can, and they need experienced commanders. Which is why Steadholder Harrington soon finds herself serving the Grayson Space Navy as...Admiral Harrington.

All is not perfectly rosy, of course; Haven is plotting an attack, and hyper-conservative forces on Grayson itself practically think she's the devil incarnate. (It's some of those sequences that I skipped on this reading; the characters are thoroughly unpleasant, and so are the things they do. I know how it comes out, and see no point in subjecting myself to evil tedium.)

The book has certain features in common with its predecessor, especially as regards the climax; suffice it to say that Graysons aren't Manticorans, and that sometimes this is a good thing.

Honor Among Enemies
By David Weber

When I first read Weber's Honor Harrington series, I read the first five and put off reading this one for quite some time. Honor had had quite a hard time in the last couple of books, and the title of this one Didn't Bode Well. As it turns out, it's one of the more interesting books in the series.

The inspiration for Honor Harrington and her world was, of course, Forester's Horatio Hornblower series; Weber has gone to great (and occasionally painful) lengths to elaborate the laws of physics such that fleets of space ships are subject to the many of the same constraints and tactical considerations as the square-rigged warships of Hornblower's day. But of course military technology doesn't stand still, and in this book we get to watch innovation in action.

In this book, Honor is called back to active service in the Royal Manticoran Navy. The political considerations that make her recall feasible also ensure that she cannot be given the command she deserves and a place in the front lines. And so she's given command of a squadron of Q-ships: freighters outfitted as warships, teeth carefully hidden to better lure pirates in close.

It so happens that the Star Kingdom of Manticore adjoins a somewhat wild and wooly volume of space known as the Silesian Confederacy. Manticore's wealth stems from trade, some of it with the Confederacy, and even more with systems beyond the Confederacy. The Silesian government is weak, venal, and corrupt, and the Silesian Navy is a joke. Consequently, Manticore has long patrolled the Silesian spaceways, if only to safeguard her own shipping. The war with Haven has higher priority, though, and now Manticoran freighters are getting picked off left and right. To Silesia Honor and her Q-ships will go; but these are Q-ships with a difference. They aren't well armored--no freighter is--but they contain within them the germ of the technology that will eventually win the war.

As the Havenite task force that's currently playing pirates in Silesia will soon discover....

One of the strengths of the Harrington series (and also, sometimes, one of its weaknesses) is its massive cast of characters. In this book we first meet several people who will become instrumental in later books, notably Citizen Captain Warner Caslet and his Tac Officer, Shannon Foraker. Weber never lets us forget that however vicious the war becomes, and however evil some of the parties are, there are men and women of honor on both sides.

In Enemy Hands
By David Weber

The first half of this book is a dead loss. The second half is much better, but unfortunately it isn't long enough to stand on its own.

The first half of the book is intended to put Honor Harrington into a position where she must necessarily be captured by the People's Republic of Haven. (Given the book's title, this hardly counts as a spoiler.) Further, because Honor is such a paragon her capture mustn't be her own fault. It can't be due to cowardice; it can't be due to making a stupid tactical decision; no, it must be pure bad luck mingled with heroism.

And it doesn't work. Honor is commanding a squadron of cruisers on convoy duty. According to her deployment, one cruiser leads; the remainder trail. The point position is the most dangerous, especially as the convoy enters a new system--the ship on point will be the first to see any lurking enemies. If there are any, it will probably be able to warn the ships the follow, but it will probably not be able to get away. Weber explains this to us in great detail, and has Honor reluctantly agree that her ship can't take the point position. As the squadron commander, it's her duty to be where she can best protect the convoy as a whole.

So far, so good. So how come, a few dozen pages later, we find her on the bridge of her second-in-command's ship, in the point position, as said ship enters a system? Well, she was there for a birthday party, and there was no time to lose, so instead of returning to her own ship she stayed where she was and got captured.

Now, really, that's just dumb. Visiting the point ship while they were in hyperspace is one thing. Staying on board while the point ship recon'd the system the convoy was approaching is quite another. No matter how you slice it, Honor blew it.

And Weber lets her get away with it. Ugh.

Aside from that, quite a bit of nothing goes on during the first half of the book; there are few scenes that set things up for later books in the series, but most of it could have been cut without damaging the story.

The second half, now, the second half is why the book was written at all.

Some books back, the People's Republic of Haven underwent a revolution led by (for goodness sake) one Rob S. Pierre. (Sometimes I wonder if Weber regrets having chosen such a cheesy name.) Things have stabilized somewhat since then, and Haven is now governed by the Committee for Public Safety, or practically speaking, by Pierre; by Oscar St. Just, head of the Office of State Security; and by Cordelia Ransom, head of the Office of Public Information. Yes, our Cordelia is the chief propagandist of the Revolution; she's also a True Believer of the most militant stripe, and a sadist to boot.

As the book begins, Ransom has gone to visit the front lines in the Office of Public Information's private cruiser, the Tepes (and isn't that a name that's fraught with atmosphere). Honor has the bad luck to be caught just after Ransom arrives in-system, and though her naval captors do their best to see that Honor and her crew are treated decently, Ransom has other ideas. For her actions in On Basilisk Station, Honor was tried and convicted of murder (in absentia, of course). Ransom sees the publicity coup of her life--Honor Harrington, war criminal, is on the short road to Hell and death by hanging.

Naturally, our heroine can't be allowed to end that way...and therein lies the tale, and it's a good'un. Once you get past all of the garbage at the beginning.

Echoes of Honor
By David Weber

The Honor Harrington books have never been solely about Honor Harrington; her adversaries and the various players in the governments of Manticore and Haven have always had their turn on the stage. But starting with this book, Weber ups the volume. I mean that literally; it's longer than its predecessors and although it's nominally about Honor's escape from Hell, the prison planet run by Haven's Office of State Security, at least half of it is devoted to a variety of goings on in other places. It's a fine book, and I enjoyed it; but I fear the cast might be getting a bit too large, and I suspect a little judicious cutting would have made it a better book. It's not so bad here, but becomes more pronounced in later books.

Ashes of Victory
By David Weber

This is the next book about Honor Harrington, except that it isn't really about Honor Harrington. As a result of the rigors of her capture and escape, she spends most of this book in rehab and on light-duty--teaching at Saganami Island, Manticore's naval academy. And of course she mostly saves the day at the end of the book. We visit with her periodically.

The book is partially about the fruit of Honor's tactical experiments in Honor Among Enemies and Admiral White Haven's execution of (what should have been) the final phases of the war with Haven.

But mostly, it's about Honor's honorable opponents, those men and women in Haven's navy who are now fighting a double war--not only an open war with Manticore, but also a covert war to preserve their nation from the fanatics who now rule her.

And everything's beginning to look nice and shiny, and then it happens. I'd tell you precisely what happens, except that Weber kindly devoted the whole next book to it so you'll have to wait until the next review.

Anyway, there was much of interest in this episode; there were a number of things that annoyed me, including a subplot I have a real distaste for; and there were a lot of extra words. In short, it's worth reading if you've read the previous books and want to know what happens next, but there's nothing special about it.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling

Oh, my. That's all; oh, my.

In many ways this book is less action-packed than its immediate predecessor (and shorter, too); most of the story takes place at Hogwarts, and for most of the book Hogwarts is a reasonably peaceful place. There's more teen angst and bickering, and a few delightful teen victories--oh, and Harry spends quite a bit of time working with Dumbledore. Doesn't sound like much, put that way, but the book works, it definitely works, even if it has a quieter tone than some of the others.

Of course, there's always a lull before the storm....

Oh, my.

War of Honor
By David Weber

This is the most recent book in the Honor Harrington series, and in most ways the least satisfying to date. It's simply not that pleasant watching idiots fail by the numbers.

Manticore's Centrist party lost power near the end of the previous book, and following Manticoran tradition the Opposition parties were given the chance to form a coalition government. And so they did--an unholy alliance of the far right and far left, whose leaders were motivated by a single goal: to gain power and to keep it for as long as possible. And so for this entire book, we get to watch the new Prime Minister of Manticore and his cabinet pissing away (you should excuse the expression) all of the political and military gains of the last ten years for their own personal political benefit, while compromising most of their supposed principles.

This is one book that would really benefit from some serious trimming. The main plot is explored in tedious and painful detail; it would really have made a much better subplot while something more interesting was going on.

The book does have a few high points; it's not a total loss. And as with its predecessor, if you've come this far in the series you'll want to know what happens next. But I sure hope the next book won't be more of the same.

More Than Honor
By David Weber et al

Back in 1998, Weber began to allow other authors to write short works set in the same universe as his Honor Harrington series--that is, in what's since become known as the "Honorverse". Many of these stories have introduced characters and bits of history that have later appeared in the main sequence of the series. This is the first book of such works; it includes one tale each by David Drake, S.M. Stirling, and by Weber himself, including a lengthy pieces on the series background; this latter is, I imagine, the place where Weber goes to look stuff so that he doesn't make foolish mistakes.

The first tale is called "A Beautiful Friendship"; it concerns the first contact between humans and treecats on the planet Sphinx. Although Honor Harrington herself is always accompanied by her treecat, who is officially known as "Nimitz" and affectionately known as "Stinker", I haven't said much about the treecats in this series of reviews. I shall rectify that now.

Treecats are long, six-legged, and furry; they have a vaguely feline heads, but their bodies look more like a weasels. They are as intelligent as humans, but communicate telepathically with each other. They can't generally communicate telepathically with humans, but they can feel human emotions. And certain treecats like the feel of human emotions so much that they will seek out compatible humans and "adopt" them. The bond between a treecat and his adopted human is such that if either dies, the other is likely to pine away. Treecats often have wicked senses of humor, and they're sudden death in hand-to-hand combat.

Anyway, "A Beautiful Friendship" tells of how a young girl named Stephanie Harrington, Honor's ancestor, became the first human to be adopted by a treecat; and though I find the whole idea of treecats to be a little cutesy--it's really just a veiled reflection of our culture's fascination with Love At First Sight--I enjoyed the story thoroughly.

The next tale, "A Grand Tour", is by David Drake. It concerns a Manticoran's noble on a grand tour to see archaeological relics; and his encounter with a scurrilous fellow with an appalling excavation technique. This one has had no effect on the main series, which is a great pity.

The final tale, "A Whiff of Grapeshot", is by S.M. Stirling; it introduces the Havenite admiral Esther McQueen, and tells how she saved Rob Pierre and the rest of the Committee for Public Safety from armed uprising. McQueen goes on to become a major character in Weber's later novels, so Stirling can be justifiably proud. The only trouble is, I read the later novels before I read this story; and as one of those novels summarizes the events told herein I found the story rather dull.

All-in-all, not bad; out of three stories, I quite enjoyed two of them.

Worlds of Honor
By David Weber et al

This is the second of Weber's "Honorverse" anthologies; the contributors this time are Linda Evans, Jane Lindskold, Roland Green, and David Weber himself.

The book opens with a tale by Linda Evans called "The Stray". It's another story of the early days of men and treecats, and takes place a few years after Stephanie Harrington became the first treecat adoptee. It's also a tale of murder and corporate greed; indeed, this tale includes the earliest mention I've noticed of genetic slavers Manpower Unlimited. It's not bad, although the "Big Corporations Are Evil" meme has been overused of late.

Next up is "What Price Dreams?" by Weber himself. Roger II is king of Manticore at the this time, and his daughter Princess Adrienne is making a royal visit to Sphinx. King Roger's out of sorts with Sphinx, and with treecats, and especially with the Sphinx Forestry Service; thanks largely to the late Stephanie Harrington, large tracts of what were previously Crown land on Sphinx are being held in perpetuity for the treecats, and hence are unavailable to be given out as rewards to Roger's political allies. The power of the monarchy is under assault, and Roger needs all the friends he can get. The last thing he needs is for his daughter to be adopted by a treecat....

I'm afraid that "What Price Dreams?" was somewhat predictable, but heck, I enjoyed it anyway.

Next is "Queen's Gambit" by Jane Lindskold, which tells of the assassination of King Roger III and his daughter's accession to the throne of Manticore as Queen Elizabeth III. Not a bad story, all around, though it has the misfortune that many of the pertinent details are summarized in one of the main-line Harrington novels. As a result, I knew more-or-less what was going to happen before I read it.

Then comes "The Hard Way Home", again by David Weber, which is a tale of Honor Harrington as a young officer. An avalanche buries a good bit of a ski resort on Gryphon; a contingent of Manticoran Marines are practicing drops nearby and immediately move to aid the rescue efforts. Along the way Harrington has to deal with yet another obnoxious friend of her old nemesis Pavel Young.

Finally, we have "Deck Load Strike" by Roland J. Green, a tale of a unit of Manticoran Marines serving as advisors in a bush-conflict on a minor planet rather far away from Manticore; Haven, naturally, is supporting the other side. I liked this one least of all the stories in the book, though it has the advantage that it involves new characters and settings.

All-in-all, not a bad outing.

Worlds of Honor #3: Changer of Worlds
By David Weber et al

This is the third of Weber's "Honorverse" anthologies; featured are stories by Eric Flint, Weber himself, and....Weber himself. In fact, Weber has three stories in this volume to Flint's one. I'll note, also, that the book is thick enough (at 469 pages) that at least two of the stories could have been published as stand-alone novels twenty years ago.

The first story is called "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington", and concerns our usual heroine. Before they can graduate, cadets at Saganami Island must pass one very special final exam--the "middie cruise". They must show that they have what it takes to serve as a Queen's officer by actually serving as a (well-supervised and extremely junior) Queen's officer. Honor has to deal with the usual stresses and plot complications; but she also gets to serve with one Captain Bachfish, a man whose style of leadership she later adopts pretty much completely. Not a bad tale, all-in-all.

I can't say the same about the title story, "Changer of Worlds", which is yet another story of pivotal historical events in the life of the treecats. At the beginning of the novel In Enemy Hands, after Honor's treecats Nimitz and Samantha have had kittens, a small group of treecats show up at the Harrington homestead on Sphinx and make it clear that they intend to travel to Grayson with Honor, Nimitz, Samantha, and the kittens, there to establish the first colony of treecats off of Sphinx. This short story describes the discussion between Samantha and Nimitz on the one hand and Nimitz' clan on the other that led to this unprecedented move.

Unfortunately, the moment might be historic; it's also dull and predictable. "You can't do that; we've never done that." "Oh, but we need to do that; and it's a logical progression." "But we've never done that." "But if we don't, think about what could happen." "Oh. I guess we have to do that." At least it's short.

The third tale is Flint's "From the Highlands", and it's a doozy. This is the story that introduces Manticoran intel analyst Anton Zilwicki, anti-slavery activist Lady Catherine Montaigne, Countess of the Tor, Havenite agent Victor Cachat, and the anti-slavery terrorist organization, the Audubon Ballroom. I have no idea why the organization is called the Audubon Ballroom; but its members are all ex-slaves. If you're a slaver and members of the Ballroom catch up with you, they say "Shall we dance?" And then they kill you. Nasty folks, the Ballroom, but one sees their point.

Victor Cachat is a particularly compelling character; born in poverty in the dolist slums of New Paris, he enlisted with the Office of State Security immediately after Pierre's Revolution--because he believed in the Revolution's political ideology. The Committee for Public Safety has departed in large measure from that ideology since, while paying it lip-service...but Victor has remained firm. And that's going to become a serious problem for a surprisingly large number of people. In addition to his fanaticism, Victor is also extremely competent, quick on his feet, and completely nuts.

Anyway, Flint delivers as usual; "From the Highlands" is rather more lurid than Weber allows himself to be (sometimes uncomfortably so, to my taste) but it's a darned good story.

Finally, we've got Weber's "Nightfall", a story I found it impossible to get through. It's the complete, detailed story of Admiral Esther McQueen's attempted coup against Rob Pierre and the Committee for Public Safety. As so often before with this series of anthologies, the relevant details are covered in the main sequence of Harrington novels; and since I find Havenite politics in general and Esther McQueen in particular to be deadly dull there was just no point in putting myself through it. Your mileage may vary; if I'd read the anthology when it first came out, the story would have been new to me and I'd probably have enjoyed it more.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

A Cry of Shadows
By Ed Gorman

In this sequel to The Autumn Dead, it's Christmas-time and P.I. Jack Dwyer's steady girl Donna is away on a business trip. Not the best time for Dwyer, emotionally sensitive on his best days, to get involved in a murder query revolving around a bunch of people who've shared each other's beds. The right temptation at the wrong time has sent stronger men asunder, and Dwyer is lonely and inexplicably attractive to women.

A Cry of Shadows doesn't sound much like a murder mystery, but Ed Gorman's kind of private eye novels are hardly about who killed whom, but about how all this affects a different, softer kind of private investigator. The big question is answered a little too neatly anyway, so don't come expecting a complex denouement on par with Colin Dexter; come simply to travel with an everyman private eye, and leave the tough guys to fend for themselves.

Gorman has the enviable ability to make every word count, and A Cry of Shadows has all the meat of your average mystery novel and more, contained within a book the size of a novella (less than 150 pages).

The Last Dance
By Ed McBain

I learned of the death of Evan Hunter (nee Salvatore Lombino) just prior to starting The Last Dance, the fiftieth of his 87th Precinct novels written under the Ed McBain pseudonym. Since I had already read the succeeding one, Money, Money, Money this one was fascinating its lead-in character development, especially of the relatively new Oliver Wendell "Fat Ollie" Weeks of the 88th Precinct.

This time, the boys of Isola's Eight-Seven, in addition to their work with Weeks of the Eight-Eight, also team up with some fellows from the Three-Two to solve several related murders, seemingly centered around the revival of a musical flop from the 1920s called "Jenny's Room", which was based on a young woman's hit autobiographical play.

The Last Dance has one of the more intriguing plotlines as the details behind the musical, the play it was based on, and the rights that need to be acquired (because "the show must go on") come to light. In fact, so many people die who are in some way connected to "Jenny's Room" that two people ask, "What is this, the Scottish play?" (It is considered unlucky by stage folk to say the title of Macbeth, given the misfortune that has surrounded so many adaptations.)

McBain once again shows why he was the master of the police procedural, and why he was once quoted as saying, "I feel there is no other writer of police procedurals in the world from whom I can learn anything; in fact, they all learn a lot from me." Not particularly gracious, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 2005
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