Thursday, March 30, 2017
War of Honor, by David Weber
Usual disclaimer to fair and gentle readers. Some amount of spoiling will happen below because with nine books already gone it's almost impossible to talk about anything that's happened. If you wish to avoid spoilers please avert your eyes now.
War of Honor picks up about four years after Ashes of Victory left off. The Star Kingdom of Manticore and the reborn Republic of Haven have been at an uneasy truce while negotiations over a permanent peace agreement have dragged on interminably. As part of the truce, the Star Kingdom's government, now in the hands of a coalition of the Conservative, Liberal, and Progressive parties after the death of Centrist Lord Cromarty at the end of the last book, has drastically reduced funding for the Royal Navy and cut back on not only active ships but also construction of ships, much to the frustration and dismay of many Centrists, Honor Harrington and Alexander Hamish included. Relieved of their naval commands, both Honor and Hamish have been deeply involved in the Star Kingdom's politics and have forged a close working relationship with Queen Elizabeth III.
As things almost always do in these books, a bad situation get worse, the midden hits the windmill, and it's up to Honor to save the day in some manner. And I wouldn't have it any other way. I think part of the problem, though, is that Honor is so far up the chain of command she's no longer in charge of a ship or a group of ships. She's a full-blown admiral and in command of fleets of ships. So when she's out in the field now, there are whole areas of space that become her responsibility and dozens of subordinates. And we do get to see those subordinates do things, such as the misadventures of the ship Jessica Epps in Silesia and the growing tensions with the Andermani Empire. But it does mean we get to see less of Honor out in the field, taking charge of things, when the series has her name on it. Which isn't to say hearing about people like Eloise Pritchart isn't interesting, she's a good character as well, but the series has definitely grown beyond Honor at this point.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some issues which have grown to be rather significant as the series has gone on. A big example is my perennial problem with Weber's writing: show, don't tell. There's an event mentioned in this book, the Manpower Incident, which has something to do with the genetic slave trade and connections with members of the Manticoran ruling parties which caused a huge scandal in the Kingdom. But we don't actually get to see this event within the book. I did some digging and I found out it's actually covered in a short story anthology set within the same universe which I have not read. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it kind of makes sense, considering how insanely big Weber's made his net of plot threads, to have different books to handle different parts of the universe. On the other hand, it gets really confusing when the characters are mentioning events I have had absolutely no inkling about or characters I haven't met before suddenly come into the narrative. At least, I'm pretty sure I haven't met them before. There are so many darn characters in this series it's hard for me to keep track sometimes.
So I'm not sure how much stuff that should have been shown in this book wasn't just shown in another book and now I'm wondering how many other books I'm going to have to hunt down and read. But I still have a sneaking suspicion that things that should have been shown were just told to us instead. And as Weber starts cramming in all these other plotlines like a new wormhole junction and the genetic slave trade, I'm worried that the main plotline is going to get muddled as a result.
Another issue I have is how apparently every politician who isn't some flavor of space-libertarian is evil and just waiting for an opportunity to abuse their power. I'm probably not representing this correctly but that's how it's coming across to me. To provide a short summary you have five major parties. The Crown Loyalists, whose platform seems to be pro-monarch, no matter what. Then there's the Centrists, Conservatives, Liberals, and Progressives. The Conservatives are almost entirely hard-right aristocrats who want to bring back the semi-feudal nature of the Star Kingdom and the old rights of the aristocracy. The Liberals and Progressives are both left of center politically speaking, although the Progressives are closer to center. They both favor varying degrees of economic and social reform to adjust imbalances in wealth equality in the Star Kingdom, their biggest difference seems to be their approach to Haven. The Liberals want to ignore the problem until it goes away, the Progressives want to make some sort of deal with Haven. And finally there are the Centrists who favor limited government, the flat income tax required by the Manticore constitution, and strong funding for the Royal Navy. In many ways they come across as libertarian except for their strong pro-military stance, although this is from my experience of libertarians being anti-military as well as anti-government, I could be wrong.
Where this gets frustrating is that almost everyone who isn't part of the Centrists or Crown Loyalists comes across as some card-carrying, moustache-twirling villain who's in government just to get as many kickbacks as possible before absconding with millions of dollars. Or in one case hopelessly naive and willing to compromise their principles if it'll keep them in power and get them what they want in the short-term. We really only see one member of the Liberal Party, Catherine Montaigne, who has any real moral backbone and she explicitly doesn't believe in the economic equality ''claptrap'' that the party platform includes. And several of the social programs which the Liberal and Progressive parties fund to help improve life in the Star Kingdom are explicitly overfunded so members of the government can skim amounts off the top for their own personal gain in a blatant example of embezzlement and malfeasance.
The result is an image that feels far too...simplistic to me. There can be and currently are long and ongoing debates over what exactly the role of the government should play in the economy. Personally I'm a social democrat so I tend to agree with the more interventionist approach to the government and the economy. Which isn't to say I don't recognize where intervention and regulation can go to far and there needs to be a certain degree of freedom. And there can be some strong arguments made for a more hands-off approach. But I wouldn't say people on either side of the argument are inherently bad. I think it's very unlikely that most people who support government programs to help improve the welfare of its citizens see it as opportunities to skim a bunch of money off the top for themselves. And I wouldn't accuse people who oppose social welfare spending as being heartless bastards who just hate the poor and see them as worthless parasites. I know some people who genuinely think like that, but I'm willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to other people.
In this book, however, it feels very black and white. It's implied that not all the members of parliament that aren't Centrists or Crown Loyalists are bad people, but we don't really get to see that. One of the things I've really liked about this book is that Manticore and Haven weren't all good or all bad. There were bad people on Manticore's side and good people on Haven's side and we could like and respect both sides even if the conflict was misguided. But with how Manticore's internal politics are portrayed in this book, it feels like all nuance has gone out the airlock and we've either got heroic statesmen or craven politicians. I just wish for more of a nuance.
Overall this book is okay, and I like seeing characters I like and I still enjoy the universe, but I worry that it's getting to be too big a project and also that the problems like show don't tell are starting to become rather large issues in the series. Not only did we have the ongoing conflict between Manticore and Haven, but we had the genetic slave trade, the expansion of the wormhole junction, Manticore's internal politics, Silesia, and growing conflict with the Andermani Empire. The result was it feels like Weber's trying to take on too much in one book. It certainly makes the universe feel deep and complex, but it makes the book that much more difficult to follow as well. Because I'm invested in the series I'll probably keep trooping through with it, but I definitely understand why some people would want to give up at this point.