Beginnings is the sixth book in the WORLDS OF HONOR series, edited by David Weber. WORLDS OF HONOR collects stories about Honor Harrington and other Honorverse character, often written by other writers. As Beginnings implies, these five stories mostly take place before Honor’s service in the Royal Manticoran Navy. One takes place late in Honor’s career, and explores changes to the navy of Grayson, a world with a rigid, patriarchal political system.
In “By the Book,” Charles E. Gannon provides some rollicking action, a cerebral mystery and a political coming-of-age of a young Lieutenant. Earth-sider — or “dirt-sider” as the in-system colonists call it — Lee Strong and his crew board a hijacked passenger liner. The operation is filled with suspense, and even though Strong recovers control of the ship, there are no answers to be found, just more questions. Those questions lead him to Jupiter’s moon Callisto and an investigation of an act of sabotage. Strong soon realizes that the question is not whether there is a conspiracy, but rather which conspiracy is responsible for the passenger liner and the explosion on Callisto. The plot, which involves the repressive and corrupt “dirt-sider” government (a coalition of Greens and Neo-Luddites), the “Upsiders,” planetary colonists who need Earth’s wealth but are becoming technologically more advanced than Earth, and the Outbounders, who are taking ships out to colonize other systems, is complex, and at the heart of it is what choice Strong will make when he realizes the truth. Strong is a by-the-book officer, and the title is also a play on words. My favorite subplot in this twisty mystery is Strong’s relationship with Bulganin and Cabral, two slacking security men. Strong thinks Bulganin is just lazy. When he gets new information that changes his opinion, he is able to adjust his relationship with the man and still maintain his authority. It is a growth moment for the young officer.
“A Call to Arms” by Timothy Zahn also follows the learning curve of a young lieutenant. The Star Kingdom has been at peace for a long time, so long that the political Houses are considering force reductions. They are unaware of the mercenary fleet heading their way. Travis Long runs afoul of an admiral when he writes up the Admiral’s nephew for a mistake. The admiral humiliates the young lieutenant, but Long learns several lessons, and later, when his ship confronts the mercenaries, he puts them all to good use. Usually the type of story where people sit around in ready rooms and endlessly discuss strategy puts me into a stupor. Zahn dodges that problem by shifting points of view among captains of the mercenary fleet and the Manticoran Navy ships. One glitch was the recurring reference to Long’s nickname, when the nickname was never used, but this was a minor distraction. This was a suspenseful tale with plenty of interest.
Weber contributes two novellas here. Fans of Honor and the Sphynxian treecat she calls Nimitz will be delighted with “The Best Laid Plans.” On the planet Sphynx, twelve-year-old Honor Harrington plans a hike into the foothills to gather special flowers for her mother’s birthday. This expedition does not exactly have parental approval, but Honor is in good shape, an experienced hiker and thoroughly prepared. She reckons without the extra-dry summer, which has driven a pair of high-mountain apex predators and their cubs down into the foothills. This set of circumstances leads to fateful meeting.
I enjoyed Weber’s descriptions of the landscape of Sphynx, which reminded me of Wyoming or parts of Alaska. I was disappointed, though, in the wildlife. I already knew about the six-limbed treecats, but Sphynx also has water-dwelling rodents who build dams of tree trunks, called near-beavers by the human settlers, and the apex predators are called peak bears, who den up for most of the planet’s winters. Given the long seasons and longer years, relative to earth, and the heavier gravity, I thought creating analog animals and just giving them six legs showed a lack of imagination, just as I don’t understand why Honor grows up to be tall and willowy on a planet which would encourage the development of stocky people. I predict that die-hard fans will not care about these questions, though, because of the resolution of this story.
I liked “The Best Laid Plans,” but Weber’s other tale, “Beauty and the Beast,” was a disappointment, mostly because this was a story I was interested in. This is the tale of how Honor’s parents, Alfred Harrington and Allison Benton Ramirez y Chou, met. Alfred, a member of the Manticoran Navy, has come to the planet of Beowulf to study medicine at the Ignatz Semmelweis University. I really appreciated this name choice, and once you search it, you will too.
Alfred is seen as an outsider. Because he qualifies for a position at the school as part of the Manticoran naval “quota” he is resented. Alfred also has something to hide. Allison is the daughter of a powerful and wealthy family, a popular girl who chafes under the weight of the family name. Her brother Jacques is a high-ranking member of the planet’s security force, and he has made an enemy of the Manpower Corporation, a company that traffics in legal slaves and does many illegal things as well. When Allison and Alfred first meet, sparks don’t fly, but there is a connection. Before they can explore that connection, Allison is kidnapped by her brother’s enemies.
This is a powerful set-up for a story that should have been nail-bitingly dramatic. Instead, it was slow and talky. Jacques talks a lot, spilling pages of expository dialogue. The hired thug villains talk a lot too, blurting out not only their plans and their motivations, explaining in detail just how evil they are. The sequence where Alfred goes after Allison is good, but goes on too long, and the story wraps up without explaining an intellectual breakthrough Alfred had earlier, or the nature of the strange connection the two lovers share. Alfred, who comes from Sphynx, has a model of connection to relate to, but there is no explanation of why it works both ways. Primarily, though, the work is too long and talky for the story.
“Obligated Service,” by Joelle Presby, rounds out the book. For most of this story I had no idea what was going on. After re-reading the first half, here’s what I think it’s about: Claire is from Grayson, a male-supremacist planet with a rigid patriarchal government. Thanks to the influence of Honor Harrington, Grayson is taking steps toward equality for women, and very tiny steps they are, too. Claire is one of the first wave of Grayson women to be allowed into the Grayson Navy. Having been trained at an egalitarian Manticoran training base, Claire experiences culture shock when she is put on a “bad” Grayson ship, where the captain is incompetent, a virtual absentee officer, and loudly sexist. The XO is at least incompetent and probably corrupt. Fortunately, Claire gets moved to a “good” Grayson ship, but has trouble accepting that she is now being judged on her ability and character rather than gender. Then a war breaks out and that makes everything better — except for the people who are killed in the sneak attack that sets it off.
In the first few pages of “Obligated Service,” the story hurled plot elements at me with the ferocity of an automatic tennis ball launcher from a Stephen King movie. Here’s just a sampler: 1) Claire has no money; 2) her charity uniform is too long; 3) she isn’t wearing enough make-up; 4) Aunt Jessie runs a restaurant; 5) Claire should be an ensign by now — why isn’t she?; 6) cousins Mary and Alice are exotic dancers; 6) Mary’s a tattle-tale; 7) now Claire’s an ensign but she never took her boards; 8) Claire’s legal Head of Household back home is a spendthrift teenage boy; 9) Claire might be mechanically gifted. All of these elements are given the same weight. It isn’t until the end of the story that I realized that only two or three of those actually mattered.
Most baffling are the continued references to Claire’s two pole-dancing cousins. They are brought up repeatedly, apparently intending to point up some of the hypocrisy of the Grayson system. We never meet them, so they never carry the emotional weight they could and should have.
The best part of the story is the middle section, where we watch Claire struggling to understand how she is being treated on the “good” Grayson ship. There really is a breakthrough here, although it’s buried under conversations about make-up, polygamy and social stigma. Claire stands up for herself once against a groper, but basically by the end of the story, everyone around her (some of them are women) rescue her from her plight. I thought Presby’s depiction of the society was heavy-handed. The story would have been powerful if the first captain had led an excellent ship and was a reactionary bigot. As it was, the awfulness of the first ship, combined with the “punishment” it faces at the end of the book, read like fantasy wish-fulfillment rather than an exploration of bigotry, status quo, and change. This story was a disappointment, although it’s possible the story would be clearer to someone who has read other books set on Grayson.
I enjoyed two of these stories a great deal; I think “The Best Laid Plans,” while a bit short on imagination, would be a crowd-pleaser. People who like Weber’s universe will enjoy Beginnings, but it’s not for the new or casual Honorverse reader.
Honor Harrington — (1993- ) Publisher: The Basilisk System was a place to sweep incompetents, fools, and failures under the rug… or to punish officers with enemies in high places. Commander Honor Harrington has enemies, and she’s about to make more of them — because the people out to get her have made one mistake: They’ve made her mad.
RELATED (HONOR HARRINGTON UNIVERSE):
WORLDS OF HONOR (HONOR HARRINGTON ANTHOLOGIES):