Monday, August 6, 2012

A Space Opera Interlude: A Rising Thunder

The plucky Star Empire of Manticore has much more than its fair share of trouble to deal with on a regular basis. Whether it's political corruption or fleets of superdreadnaughts, the Manticore binary system has seen it all. This latest volume in David Weber's epic recounting of a future history once again ramps up the perils that are hurled at the little star nation, sometimes literally at hundreds of times the speed of light.

For those who wish to read this book or the entire series, be warned that I will be dispensing SPOILERS like a Manticoran task force dispenses missile pods. Which is to say, stop reading unless you want the story spoiled, 'cause I'll be spoilin' it but good. Haven't read the "Honor Harrington" series? Well, there's not much keeping you from it; most of the series is available for free, legal download at places like this, which hosts the material found on CDs bound into many of Baen Publishing's books. Tons of free reading, not all of it by David Weber.

This volume, the 13th in the series - though there two ancillary series consisting of two books each (so far) and a five-volume (and counting) series of anthologies - continues to expand the scope of the saga in ways which would likely astonish someone who has just started reading, or even someone reading just two or three books back.

I love these books beyond all reason. They're addicting. Some volumes seem extremely overwritten; maybe they are, but to me, Weber was laying an intricate foundation for what was to come. A millennium of history has been laid out. Several constellations worth of planets have been detailed, each with their own story. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of characters have come and gone, all with roles to play, sometimes reappearing unlooked-for, sometimes dying. It's difficult for me not to love such a fully-realized setting.

Never let it be said that Weber is afraid to kill off characters. He famously had marked even the titular character of the series for death in At All Costs, and you can see him building to it. He relented due to the influence of, among others, his wife, but even before that, he didn't shy from running Honor through a gauntlet in previous books. I have felt more than once she wouldn't survive the book I was reading at the moment. Though she has survived, many others, some long-familiar to the reader, have given up the ghost along the way. I'd gotten so used to the mortality rate for characters in Weber's books that I took the opportunity at a book signing to ask him not to kill off Admiral Lester Tourville - what can I say, I dig the guy. Weber jokingly replied that his wife had warned him to leave Tourville alone; subsequently, Lester almost tasted vacuum a few books later in a nail-biter of a space battle.  So the Fickle Finger of Fate seems poised, ever-ready to poke down on one character or another.

Get ready for the SPOILERS. Don't say I didn't warn you!

As the book begins, the newly-minted Star Empire is still reeling from a surprise attack in the previous volume in the series, Mission of Honor, that has left its industrial base in tatters. The assailant is still something of a mystery, despite the general direction of the attack's origin being known. 

Long-time Manticoran nemesis, the Republic of Haven, had been poised to surrender just as the sneak attack caused the recall of the mighty Eighth Fleet and its commander, Honor Harrington. Eloise Pritchart, president of the Republic, makes a surprising decision at the end of Mission of Honor of just how to take advantage of this respite from total defeat, one that would have been unthinkable not many books ago. She has received information from super-spies Victor Cachat of Haven, and Anton Zilwicki of Manticore, that reveals a conspiracy of such scope and age that it far outstrips that of the Illuminati, a conspiracy that has been using Manticore, Haven, and the Solarian League itself as pieces on a galactic board. Is it possible for Manticore and Haven to set aside their differences in the face of this secretive mutual enemy? Pritchart decides to take a chance in finding out.

The vast and ancient Solarian League, centered on Earth, with its capital in Old Chicago, smells blood in the water. The League, long in the background of the "Honor Harrington" series, has always loomed as the ne plus ultra of human star nations, its Navy seemingly invincible...seemingly. The lie was put to that in Mission of Honor, as the League was on the receiving end of decisive defeats at the hands of Manticoran fleets. The League, endlessly corrupt and imperialistic, now seeks nothing less than the total surrender of Manticore. The Solarian League Navy sends the largest fleet ever assembled in its history to the Manticore Binary System.

So, things are looking pretty bleak for the Star Empire.

A lot of criticism has been leveled at Weber for the decrease of space battles in this series, and the increase in endless Machiavellian political meetings. Certainly the recounting of ship-to-ship and fleet-to-fleet combat has become a rarer thing as the series has progressed. Weber is a true master of such scenes; he has meticulously figured out the technical details of his future weaponry and propulsion systems, and carefully lays out the physics and tactics involved in all his space battles. The specificity is what is appealing; there is no authorial hand-waving once battle is joined. Few things in science fiction literature are more satisfying than Weber's starship battles. What the critics seem to be overlooking is that significant chunks of even the talkiest book in the series is taken up by the descriptions of space conflicts. At this point, though, Weber has, in retrospect, clearly been laying the groundwork in the past several books for a grand conflict that involves all of explored (and some yet-to-be explored) space. All those clandestine - and some not-so-clandestine - political machinations are now bearing fruit, as the reader sees that a manipulative hand from the shadows has been guiding the course of conflicts for a long time.

A Rising Thunder has everything I've come to expect from an Honor Harrington book: starship battles; base treachery; astonishing technology; noble starship commanders; craven politicians; espionage; media manipulation; impassioned speeches; extreme melodrama; and much more, like the treecats of Sphinx pledging their support in the coming war. There's even a wedding. Yep, a wedding.

One of the things I like the most about this series is that while there are certainly bad guys and enemies that need defeating, Weber makes a point of providing any side of a conflict with sympathetic characters. I often feel more than a twinge when a battle brings characters I like on both sides into conflict. The Star Empire of Manticore is the home of the "good guys," but there are plenty of "bad guys," so to speak, that are likable and whom I wouldn't want killed - Lester Tourville, for example.

The Honor Harrington books compose my favorite science fiction series, bar none. A few books back I felt they bogged down and seemed unfocused. It seemed as though Weber was looking for a way to reconfigure the overarching plot for his future series after forgoing causing the demise of his most famous character. This is borne out by his assertion that his original plan was for Honor's son to become the center of the saga a couple of decades after his mother's death. He accelerated that plot to accommodate Honor's continuing existence, which took a couple of books to accomplish, and now the series seems to have come back on the rails. It's difficult to tell now if Weber has an endgame planned out, but I tend to think so. The decaying and fragmenting Solarian League provides both the opportunity to draw Honor's story to a close, but still leaves almost endless possibilities for future books in the "Honorverse." I hope so, because I have enjoyed being immersed in this setting, and this book brings the series back on track. Perhaps not the track of the earliest books, but it's an interesting ride, regardless.

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