Vintage Review: The Honor Harrington collection

Vintage Review:

So, as I unfortunately expected, I have too many demands on my writing-time to keep up posting two short stories a month without the buffer I previously had. As a result, one of those short stories is being replaced with a pair of different review types, “Vintage Reviews” and “Indie Reviews.” Respectively, they will be a review of an older novel/story or review of a self-published author such as myself.

In my regular reviews, I stick entirely with books released in the last few years, assuming (I think rightfully so) that older books likely already have more than enough reviews floating around. Going forward, however, reviews such as this one will tackle books that are over ten years old. Some will be classics, others simply good books that aren’t recent, and in many cases I will review a series rather than a single book from that series. I’m starting off with a review of the Honor Harrington books by David Weber, as I’ve recently acquired and listened to the audio books, refreshing my memory of the series.

(P.S. This was supposed to go up yesterday, sorry for the delay!)

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Honor Harrington Series

 

Back when I first encountered “On Basilisk Station” in the early 2000s, I had never had the pleasure of reading a military sci-fi book before. While it still isn’t a strong preference of mine, the stellar introduction I got to that sub-genre with the Honor Harrington collection has certainly resulted in me dabbling further in the area. Sadly for other books, and good for David Weber, very few of them come even remotely close to the quality of Weber’s works. While I can hardly claim to be extensively read in this sub-genre, I have yet to ever encounter the equal of this series in any of my other military sci-fi reads. It’s also been a rare case for me, in that I have been able to reread and enjoy the books on multiple occasions. I’ve read through the majority of the main series at least three times, and listened to the audio books of the same twice. That isn’t to say, however, that the series is unflawed. So let’s tackled both the good and the bad, starting with the good.

As you might imagine, given my opening statements, one of the “good” bits in regards to this series is the skillful handling of the actual military aspects. Weber’s take on space combat is, arguably, the most realistic that I’ve ever seen. Long distance weapon exchanges, communication lag, acceleration curves and more are all critical elements to many of the tactical situations the protagonist finds herself in. Which, many of you might think, sounds dreadfully boring. However! Part of the reason that I call the handling nothing short of masterful is the smooth way that Weber teaches his audience about these things. He does not expect you to chew through math, or have an advanced understanding of physics. Instead, he breaks the ideas up into bite sized pieces and repeats them just often enough for it to sink in, all before you really need to understand how it all works. Add in a convincing military structure, complete with internal politics and actual enforced discipline (few to no renegades being rewarded for behavior that any decent military would court martial you for), and you have a very believable and engaging view into the military bits of this sub-genre.

The next bit of good is the setting. While there are clear shades, almost a carbon copy in some ways, of real-world events (most predominately the United States – Soviet Union “Cold War”), the overall setting is both expansive and detailed. As the series progresses, you find yourself believing in a far flung and sprawling space presence, and find it completely reasonable that there are massively variant degrees of development for the many far distant worlds. Likewise, there is a considerable hard-science feel to most of the technology, and multiple clearly defined and deep cultures. Even the aliens, few as there are, are genuinely alien seeming. Overall, the setting may not be quite as compelling as Star Wars or Star Trek, but it’s infinitely more believable in exchange.

The next two bits are points which, since I’m rating the whole series, I have to call both good and bad. The first of these is the characterizations. In the early books, such as the series opener “On Basilisk Station,” the main character (Honor Harrington herself) shines as a glorious example of how to write a strong female character who is still human. Likewise, the bad guys are loatheable, the good guys have compelling depths, and so on. Really, all around stellar characterization throughout the earlier series. And then….it all falls apart. In later books Weber seems to have lost sight of his own characters, destroying or violating the bits that made them so compelling. I personally dropped the main series after book 11, as I became disgusted with how Honor had been warped from one of the best strong female characters I’ve ever encountered, into a weak emotional ball of blarg more fit for a Victorian damsel in distress. Along with a few characters who became so appalling that my gorge rose whenever I read them(not because they were evil, but because Weber represented such insipid vomit inducing weaklings as the good guys), this change ultimately murdered my interest in the series. Moreover, I’ve run into a number of others who had the exact same reaction, and virtually no one who thought the main series was getting better rather than worse, leaving me to wonder if Weber received a head injury or similar. Thankfully, I can say that this does not seem to have affected the spin-off series. Though, that may mean that he simply ran out of ideas or the main story got too big for him to handle, rather than the head injury idea.

The other mixed bit of the series is the plot. While not as steep a downward slide as the characterization took, the plot follows a similar pattern. In the first half dozen books, maybe a bit more, the plot is fantastic. An epic, building series of adventures that you can really sink your teeth into and care about. Then the plot essentially starts repeating itself ad nauseam. In truth, I think it was likely a result of the series moving away from military engagements and mixing huge chunks of politics into the main plot, but whatever the problem the downturn never recovers. So far as I know, at least, I haven’t been able to make myself read or listen to the books past #11. Again, the problem isn’t as bad with the spin-offs.

Now, on to the only truly negative aspect of the books, aside from the downward quality curve revealed in the last two paragraphs. It’s slow. The pacing of the books is slow, by necessity, due to the high degree of detail. Battles can span a hundred pages or more, and the buildup even longer. This isn’t all bad, if you enjoy delving into well-crafted universes it will be thoroughly enjoyable. I have, however, encountered a number of people who choked on the initial pacing/learning curve and never managed to complete “On Basilisk Station.” However! There is good news here, for many such people. The
Audible audiobooks of the series are fantastic, the reader for the main series being one of the most talented I’ve ever encountered and the material translating quite well. Virtually all of the people I mention choked on the print version of the book, were able to process the audible books much better and ultimately ended up enjoying the series. So, don’t give up on it if that sounds familiar to you.

Final Rating Breakdown:

Setting: 9/10

Characters: 7/10 (9/10 in the early series, 5/10 past a certain point)

Plot: 8/10 (9/10 in the early series, 7/10 past a certain point)

Overall: 8/10

Score Adjustments for Misc:
-1 for the sharp quality downturn of later books

Final Series Score: 7/10

Personal Recommendation: While the series isn’t without problems, I highly encourage reading or listening to at least the first half dozen books. They really are some of the very best military sci-fi I’ve ever encountered. Given the amount of content in those books alone, you could simply count them as a series and be done with it. Later books, use your own judgement after finishing the first few. It may be that my issue with them is more uncommon than I think it is.

 

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