Thursday, July 24, 2014

[Book Review] On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1) by David Weber

I'd heard the name 'Honor Harrington' a few times before, but I'd never been curious enough to check it out. It was pitched to me as 'Horatio Hornblower in Space', which didn't really grab me because I assumed it would be Space 1889-esque 'sailing ships in space' silliness, which isn't really my cup of tea. However, after hearing them talk about it on the Sword and Laser podcast I decided to look it up - in part because I discovered the titular character was female, and these days I find myself more drawn to female protagonists than male ones - and I found that not only was it not of the 'Space 1889' variety, but I actually rather enjoyed it.

After embarrassing her superiors during fleet maneuvers, Commander Honor Harrington and her newly assigned ship HMS Fearless are exiled to Basilisk Station, an important yet undervalued posting within the fleet. Resented by her crew for their exile to this backwater region of space, Commander Harrington must not only earn their trust but also make up for the Navy's neglect of its responsibilities in this sector, little knowing how vital her efforts will prove to be in the long run.

So, that's the summary of the book, now let's get the bad stuff out of the way first of all. There's quite a bit of exposition in this first book to introduce readers to the universe. There's technobabble to give an idea of how space travel and space combat works and historical background to explain how the society came about. If you don't enjoy reading a lot of that sort of stuff, then this is going to be a hard read for you - I don't like that stuff much myself - but I would argue that it's well worth persevering. In terms of hard to soft SF, I'd say it's hard-ish, in this regard. I don't know what my more scientifically minded friends would make of the Honorverse, but it certainly seems plausible enough for casual readers.

Other elements are more definitely space opera fare. For example, some readers seem to have balked at Honor having a symbiotically bonded animal in the form of her treecat companion Nimitz, but I didn't mind all that much. I even like the fact that Honor has such a furry companion, because we see her softer side through her interactions with him. That said, the technobabble and historical background do help to explain why an otherwise futuristic setting has such similarities to late second millenium Europe and the naval warfare of that time period (with the obvious addition of a third dimension to ship movement).

Plot-wise, it's a bit of a slow-burner, which is mitigated by a prologue which reveals early on the motives - if not the exact details of their nefarious plot - of the Republic of Haven, and throughout by cutaways to both the antagonists working behind the scenes and political machinations back in the Manticoran home system. We know who our bad guys are and we know - even if our protagonist does not - that they're up to no good. This knowledge provides a vital underlying tension to the story which makes it more compelling than it would otherwise be. Instead of watching our protagonist plod along with her (supposedly) unimportant duties of her new post, we're watching in anticipation of her unearthing the dastardly plot going on behind the scenes. The scenes depicting the Navy brass taking on the political ramifications were of less interest to me, but they do provide further context to events unfolding at Basilisk, demonstrating that - as insignificant as her work appears on the surface - Harrington is making a difference of some kind.

The story is sadly a bit light on characterization, which is a potential pitfall of a naval adventure of this kind, giving us snippets from different crew-members' perspectives to give us a wider snapshot of the crew for whom our main protagonist is ultimately responsible. The most spotlight time overall is given to Honor and her XO, Alistair McKeon. Even then, we don't get much sense of McKeon or Honor herself as characters beyond their military lives. Honor, we find, is a very motivated, duty-minded and - as indicated by her name - honorable woman, cool under pressure, a born leader and brilliant tactician, and not to be angered. McKeon is career-driven and bitter over being passed up for command of HMS Fearless in favor of Honor, yet deep down he is also dedicated to his duty and cares deeply for his ship and crew, which conflicts with the barrier his bitterness puts between himself and his new captain.

That said, even though we don't get a sense of Honor's character beyond her military persona, I still really dug her as a character. Why? Not only is she cool under fire, tough, and competent, but she - and her ship - are also an underdog from beginning to end. She's scraped her way to a command role despite her not being of noble birth, her first task as captain is to pull off an impossible task despite lacking the necessary resources, and then she is saddled with a career-threatening posting, and a responsibility nobody expects her to be able to pull off, yet still she rise to the challenge and doggedly strives to do what duty and honor demand of her. I can't help but love her for that.

Overall, I really enjoyed this first installment in the Honor Harrington series. It could do with some deeper exploration of the central character, but the little that we do discover about her makes for a worthy protagonist indeed. Hopefully later installments will dial back on the technobabble a little, but I'll definitely be reading the second book in the series.

If you like the sound of it so far - or even if you're not sure - and you have an e-reader, go check out it out on Amazon's Kindle store, where you can download On Basilisk Station and its sequel, The Honor of the Queen, for free. At that low price, you might as well give them a look, right?

Undecim Rating: +4

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