Wednesday, March 10, 2010

[Book Review] At All Costs (Honor Harrington)

A book by David Weber

The eleventh and, to date, final volume in the Honor Harrington series is a wild ride, particularly after the politics-heavy tenth volume, War of Honor. In this novel, Weber spends less than the usual amount of time on interstellar politics and returns to the roots of the series – space combat between enormous fleets of capital ships (now bolstered by smaller vessels more akin to fighter craft). In fact, At All Costs contains more space battles than any other novel in the entire series that I can remember. As before, tensions run high between the Kingdom of Manticore and their neighbors, the Republic of Haven. For good measure, there’s some intrigue tossed in on the part of a cabal of genetic slave traders.

Weber has a number of strengths. First and most importantly, he spins a good yarn. His stories are fun and interesting to read. Part of the reason for that is that he builds very strong, realistic characters who speak and behave like actual people would. Another part of it is that he puts those characters into very stressful situations and then challenges them to find a way out.

We got to see a lot of family stuff going on with Honor in this novel, as well as some politics (especially in the Havenite government), but they never detracted from the core of the story – increasingly huge space battles!

I have one serious nit to pick with this book. It was pretty clear that a few of the characters had some fairly significant adventures in some other part of the “honorverse” as it’s come to be called. Beyond the eleven core novels in the series, there’s an almost equal number of “spin-off” books and anthologies using some of the same characters and settings. In At All Costs, some of these characters go on and on about their off-screen antics in a way that I found distracting. In a comic book, there would have been a footnote telling me “as seen in issue #212,” but that’s not something you’re used to seeing in novels like this one. Moreover, there wasn’t even a footnote, so if I found the characters so interesting that I just had to go read their adventures, I wouldn’t (and still don’t) know what book to find them in. I thought it was handled with an uncharacteristic lack of dexterity on Weber’s part – all the more noticeable because he’s usually so smooth.

That said, the core of the Harrington stories has always been “Horatio Hornblower in outer space,” and Weber delivers in spades in At All Costs. The space battles are, as always, described in a way that makes you feel the missiles bearing down on you. The tactics and strategy are clear and easy to follow, yet complex as befits space navies that have been at war for some two decades. I won’t spoil the ending, but if you’ve been reading the Harrington books you know that they nearly all end with a huge clash of spacecraft and At All Costs is the ultimate culmination of that trend – it’s what the whole series has been building to and it’s outstanding.

I found At All Costs to be among the best of a terrific series and recommend it highly. I rate it an A-.

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