Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Review of All the Honor Harrington Books. Even the Ones I Haven't Read.

A long time from now, in a galaxy that's right here, unto us a child will be born. And they will wrap her in swaddling clothes, and lay her in a manger, and they will name her Honor.



Fast-forward about fifty years. Honor Harrington spends the next several volumes doing suicidally badass things, saving worlds, thrashing the evil with her Kung-Fu Griptm, being awarded medals and rank and wealth and elevated to the aristocracy and all but anointed Queen. In fact that last thing sort-of happens, in that one planet is so delighted at her sheer gosh-darn awesomeness that the people there actually create a country for her to rule. I did not make that up. Indeed the only people who don't think HH is just the most magnificent thing that's ever happened are evil politicians – and I don't repeat myself, as would normally be my practice, because these books do contain non-evil politicians. They all think HH is awesome, which is how you can tell. The people who don't think HH is awesome are completely icky, one and all.

Honor Harrington is truly an incredible individual. She goes from being a lieutenant-commander or something (I forget) to a fleet admiral in two completely different navies in like 35 minutes, based entirely on her consummate bad-assery. She is hated and feared by her Star Kingdom's enemies, except the good ones, who kind of admire her too. She is a master of some sort of body-stacking martial art, has a six-legged feline sidekick who's almost as deadly as she is, and really doesn't get a very great deal more dangerous to be near even when she's commanding a superdreadnought bristling with missiles. Which she does frequently. Really, giving this woman missiles is sorta gilding the lily – you already know she's gonna win the battle just because she showed up. In one volume she takes up the sword, masters it in like two paragraphs, and you just know she's going to lop some blackhat's head off with it before the final exciting chapter, because otherwise why would there be a sword? And she'll do it better than anybody's ever seen it done. Because she does everything that way: Her stupendous dangerousness is by no means her only virtue. This is a woman who is right about everything, better than anybody at doing anything. Like that country somebody gave her: As far as I can tell this place starts out as bare toxic dirt, contains no people, and within a few pages it's kicking the ass of every other country's economy on the whole planet. Most navel officers can't do that.

Or the one time she gets captured by icky enemies. Of course she not only escapes (duh) but she totally kicks the icky asses of all the bad guys (and you can tell they're bad because they don't like HH. Also they're into rape and murder and stuff, because people who don't like HH do things like that.) and escapes the prison planet with all the prisoners. An entire planet's worth. In fairness, it does take a while for her to round up the transport, but it doesn't really pose a problem. In fact Honor Harrington's single weakness is that sometimes she doesn't quite think she's awesome enough, and she kinda gets down on herself for not being more awesome. Fortunately she has a veritable army of sycophants whose sole function, other than sitting in briefing rooms and marveling at her awesomeness, is to jolly her out of these moods by reminding her of that time at the battle of Fourth Yeltsin or something when she tore an entire squadron of battleships apart with her bare hands.

David Weber, the writer of this very popular series, makes no secret that he based the character on C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower. In fact he beats you over the head with the comparison a couple of times, no mean trick in a science fiction book. I might have enjoyed the series a bit more if I weren't a fan of the Hornblower books and aware of what a pale imitation the Harrington character is. Horatio Hornblower is indeed an improbably successful naval officer, but that isn't what makes him interesting. He is also a deeply, sometimes tragically, flawed character, and his sidekicks don't sit around wishing he understood how completely incredible he is. They wonder things like, “Why did the Captain just cross the entire Atlantic and never speak a single word?” or “Should the Captain really have given that warship we just so painfully captured to that murderous South American lunatic? I don't think this is going to work out well.” And it often doesn't. With Honor Harrington, though, if she sets her hand to it you can bet it's gonna flourish. To a truly incredible degree.

There's also the writing style, which is...well, if you squeezed out the long, dreary, repetitive, unnecessary dialogue some of these lengthy books would be more like pamphlets. Seriously, the dialogue can go on for dozens of pages, and Weber is not afraid to apply those aphorisms so ruthlessly taught in Introductory Writing courses, like “Tell, Don't Show,” and “Never be afraid of beating a point to death, and when it has finally died give it a good swift kick just to be sure.” An example, which had me particularly foaming at the mouth: On the occasion when Honor Harrington is nobly allows herself to be captured, half of a book has been spent aligning the stars and getting all the characters to the ill-fated ambush. We've seen the ambush from the enemy's POV. We've had it explained to us by the omniscient narrator. The Audience Understands What's Going On. Now at last the ambush is sprung. Starships to the left of them! Starships to the right of them! Starships in front, and behind, and above and below and … hell, there's just a whole crapload of frickin' starships everywhere! Our heroes are in a bad place now, boy. It's a very dramatic situation. Clearly what's called for here is Five Pages Of Dialogue, before a single order is barked. Oy.

The plots are actually pretty good, when you can detect them through all the blather and padding. And I suppose that's what keeps me reading them, though I do require frequent breaks and never have gotten through all the books. I'm a writer myself, and yes I can get a bit critical of the writing of others. But that'll just be our little secret – I'm sure it never shows.

24 comments:

scifiguy said...

I like a good space opera. I read and enjoyed a few HH stories but lately I find all of the royal family and aristocracy connections too tedious to follow. For me that detracts enough from her badassery that I just don't read them any more.

Carl-Bear said...

You're ahead of me: I've never been able to complete an HH book, which is pretty impressive in an awful sort of way since 1) I tend to like a lot of Weber's work and 2) I'm a compulsive reader who will re-read cereal boxes at breakfast if no other printed word is available.

Tam said...

I enjoyed the first one.

I followed pretty faithfully up to the point where she got promoted to god, j.g. and finally lost interest due to the fact that it had become just too formulaic.

As an experiment, I started re-reading the series from the beginning and lost interest somewhere around the fourth book.

I like fun pulpy space opera as much as the next kid, but...

DirtCrashr said...

Ok I'll post my Astro-pulp covers...

Ruth said...

The early ones I found quite enjoyable, the latter ones (where, as Tam puts it "she got promoted to god" yah, not so much.

Axess Denyd said...

My favorite bit was how the evil evil empire which opposes HH was pretty much Obama's dream for the country.

Then it made me sad.

Brad K. said...

@ Tam,

Thanks for mentioning this from VftP.

The first six or seven are pretty good, but I think you are leaving out a few other literary "foundations", like Tale of Two Cities. And the writing style reminds me, a lot, of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bears, et. al. (I still really like Valley of Horses; the rest got kind of tedious the third of fourth time I read them.)

And I think it was E.E. "Doc" Smith that made a pulp fiction name for himself, starting a five page description with the term "indescribable".

Some of the spinoff books have rekindled the spirit of the first couple-six -- like Shadow of Saganami, and a couple of the collections of short stories.

Joel said...

Actually, Brad, I left out a helluva lot and probably should have slept on the piece before I posted it. I definitely wanted to give a shout-out to Rob S. Pierre at the very least. Gee, I wonder how that character is gonna end up?

Tam said...

Joel,

"Gee, I wonder how that character is gonna end up?"

Uh, not to spoil it for you, but I think you already know.

Still, like I said, I enjoyed it the first time 'round. Just put your critical thinking skills on hold and don't ask what Spider Man's hookin' them webs to as he swings down the street.

Like some roller coasters, though, it's just not as much fun the second time, at least for me...

Drang said...

IOW, HH=Chuck Norris.

I lost interest at Shadow of Saganaki. Methinks that Mr. Weber began to suffer from the Heinlein/Clancy Syndrome, i.e., "Extreme popularity means uneditable", thus, the books are far too frickin' long.

And, yes, naming one of the not-French Revolutionists "Rob S. Pierre" was a bit much...

Ausprepper said...

Clearly you just can't handle the thought of a strong, liberated space-woman!
Chauvinist Pig!

Brad K. said...

@ Ausprepper,

Some people like a well told short story -- or even anything less than 20 minutes read.

Others like a well constructed novel. Some of us prefer a "never ending story", series of novels -- such as the Nancy Drew mysteries (back before they were re-written to be more gender sensitive), Hardy Boys, Boy Scouts, Battleship Boys (I have two, dating from pre-WWI).

The Honorverse started out as politics-shadowed military fiction. As the military part of the story line was subsumed in later stories by the political, many of us followed along. For a time. Some few identified with Harrington, and not the story being told, and stayed with the story line, some noticed that the plot was rather naive, if well colored.

I thnik that gender chauvinism is unlikely to be the deciding factor for anyone that went on from "On Basilisk Station" to "Honor of the Queen".

Would you classify Esther Friesner anthology readers as chauvinist ("Carmen Miranda's Ghost Is Haunting Space Station Three", "Fangs for the Mammaries", "Chicks in Chainmail", and "Strip Mauled")? What about Wen Spencer's "A Brother's Price"?

ravenshrike said...

IIRC the timeline from the first book the the current situation is something like over 20 years. In the middle of multiple wars with massive casualties. So, even ignoring the more fantastical of her achievements, her promotion timeline isn't too out of whack, especially with the local potentates in her back pocket.

Will said...

Weber wrote a while ago that he had planned on killing off HH some time back, but fan (and possibly publisher?) pressure cause him to change his mind.
His offshoot books are a nice change.

tanksoldier said...

The problem is, a novel about a regular naval officer's life (space or otherwise) would rapidly get boring, even a novel set in wartime.

Honor is Horatio Hornblower redux, and probably not intended to be "realistic".

Kevin said...

Oh, thank Bog! I've read (and liked) a lot of Weber's work - the Safehold series, for instance - but I just could not read the Honor Harrington novels.

Nice to see someone else had the same reaction.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason that Weber started the "spinoff" series is that he himself realized that there wasn't really much more that he could do with Honor once she reached the "god j.g." point (and in the introduction to "At All Costs," he seemed to say as much). In the later books - and yes, I'm a fan of the series - HH has become the one thing tying a myriad of seperate storylines and characters together, many of which are becoming more interesting than the storyline featuring the central character.

And yes, Weber could use an editor to tighten things up, although I can think of quite a few other bestselling authors (Stephen King and the late Robert Jordan to name but two) that had the same problem. IMHO, once you get to a certain point of popularity, it seems that writers can get away with a lot more in the way of excess verbiage and even typos because editors seem unwilling to tell them "no."

But, that said, I'm hooked on the series, and buy each one as it comes out. Great escapism, and if nothing else, the HH novels are comfort food: No matter how bleak things look - as of the end of the last released Honorverse novel, "Mission of Honor," everybody was on the brink of a galaxy-wide war; how's that for "bleak?" - you just know everything will turn out OK in the end.

--Wes S.

Brad K. said...

@ Tanksoldier,

John Hemry's space law series ran four novels, and held about the same level of interest for me, taking a Navy ensign, in orbit with barely fictional technology, to lieutenant, I believe.

Hammer's Slammers (David Drake) and the various Bolos of the Dinachrome Brigade (Keith Laumer) take the tack of using different characters for each novel, to avoid just that difficulty in maintaining character continuity and interest.

Susan Matthews avoids the problem by never getting that close to her main character in the (very dark) Jurisdiction sf series.

Elizabeth Moon certainly does prove your point, with outstanding first novels and softer follow-ons with Hunting Colors, Once a Hero, and Trading in Danger. Her fantasy trilogy, Sheepfarmer's Daughter, is admirably well supported to the end -- but the follow on novels drooped noticeably.


@ Wes S.,

I think the difference in editing and typos is more a change to electronic "proofing" with fewer actual proof readers on the payroll. I don't see new authors getting much better treatment.

Tam said...

Tanksoldier,

Personally, if you want to see the "following a navy officer's career" thing done right, I'd recommend Drake's Daniel Leary & Adele Mundy series. It is to O'Brien's Aubrey & Maturin series as H.H. is to Forester's Hornblower.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Well, that's certainly one way to view the stories. While accurate, you managed to carefully remove all the good things Weber does, or cast them in bad lighting, unfairly.

Some of HH's enemies are despicable, yet he manages to make them sympathetic in many cases. Others are "honorable" (a major theme in the books) and part of that is recognizing and admiring a foe that deserves respect.

Yes, HH achieves the impossible. It's space opera. High opera at that. The good guy wins, against impossible odds. Is there a superman problem? You bet. She keeps winning against impossible odds, gets more power (bigger ships) and so has to beat even worse odds. Fair cop. On the other hand, Weber's done a pretty good job of making the required space operatic formula different each book.

Yes, Weber has lots of dialogue. It's what allows him to make his villians understandable. It helps show HH is human.

And you leave out that while she wins, she also loses. Symbolically, we see it in the bits and pieces of her that she leaves behind. The ships, the people, that are left broken in her wake. It's not all glorious roses and sunshine.

But... ok, you don't like the stories, and there's some honest commentary in your review. But... The Leary series as a "follow a navy officer's career" done right?

Really?

A light syrupy pulp, with completely 2 dimensional characters? One that is, at best, a light sunday afternoon read?

I'll give that I read, and enjoy, the adventures of the Leary. But they're Star Trek lite. Captain Kirk/Leary, woman(women) in every port (alien or not), arrogant, cowboy. The emotionless, logical science officer Adele/Spock... etc. Only, the plots aren't as intellectual, varied, or exciting as ST. But only superficially "following a navy officer's career," and certainly no more so that HH.

Tam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Though I have thoroughly enjoyed the Honor Harrington series over the years, I thoroughly enjoyed your review, as well. Filed under "things that make you say, 'Hmmm.'"

Kevin said...

Well, WRT the Leary/Mundy novels, I can at least read and enjoy them - something I cannot say about the Honorverse novels.

Ian Argent said...

Honor was supposed to die at the Battle of Manticore; and a 20-year gap until her kids could take their revenge.

Blame Eric Flint and certain elements of fandom.