24 May 2005

The Honorverse: At All Costs

Cover of At All CostsHaving just read and then proof-read David Weber’s At All Costs, (due out in November) I have to say: it’s his best book yet.

His co-conspirator Eric Flint mentioned that a lot of the background had already been established in War of Honor, Crown of Slaves and Shadow of Saganami, (due out in October) so the decks had, so to speak, been cleared for action. And they most definitely were!

It's a longish book by today's standards at well over a quarter of a million words (or if you like odd measures, about 300 milliBibles or 2.2 TMIAHMs) but the action basically never stops. You get very occasional half-chapter breathers for important ceremonies and the like, but the rest of it is wall-to-wall space battles, political intrigue, people blowing things up, planning to blow things up, practicing blowing things up, being blown up, trying to not be blown up, working out what will be blown up next, and so on. Even many the relatively quiet bits are quite emotive, heavy on the euphoria or tragedy. It was very difficult to put down.

If you’re not familiar with the Honorverse, the series is set about 2000 years into the future and revolves around the Star Kingdom of Manticore, which just happens to have the most useful “wormhole” in the known galaxy. Honorverse propulsion systems consist of highly efficient reaction drives, plus “the wedge”, a pair of gravity bands which throws the vessels between them along at immense accelerations (200G for a civilian ship, 400G for a large warship, 700G for a small, ~5000G for recon drones, up to 120,000G(!) for missiles), hyper-drive through a succession of hyper bands, each of which compresses travel time a little more and which are reached by reshaping the wedge into a pair of “Warshawski sails”. The limited number of wormholes short-circuit hyper, allowing a ship to wander in at one end and instantly out at the other. The travel limitations, having the wedge open at the sides (covered by a “sidewall” in military ships), and the extensive use of missiles makes for a very “wet navy” flavour to the battles.

SKM is of course a kingdom and (big surprise) living in interesting times, and in most of the books they’re battling the Republic of Haven (which has changed forms of government twice so far), with many smaller players like the Anderman Empire, the Protectorship of Grayson and so on to help things along, and the huge, old, corrupt Solarian League (including Earth) which has so far been almost background but is starting to swing into prominence. The whole show is riddled with interference from Mesa, an independent slave-trading polity within but not part of the League.

The few aliens are modest in their claims, and there’s no light-years-long starships or General Products hulls, the novelty lies in the details. The weapons involved would casually shred a Death Star – the little baby “Light Attack Craft” are about the same mass as the battleship USS Iowa, and the big beasties weigh in at over eight megatonnes and more than a kilometer long – and the ships are “built like brick outhouses” to take the stress of acceleration even after being damaged. Nano-tech is just starting to be seriously (re-)introduced, and the AIs are a long way from sentient, which keeps too many problems from being magicked away, but leaves more than enough tech details in there to keep the average geek happy.

For a “war” novelist, David has an inordinate number of femme readers and fans. Part of the reason is that there is a definite human facet to his novels; the characters avoid the cartoon-like shallowness of (say) EE “Doc” Smith’s characters without being trapped into the opposite extreme of baroque and detailed characterisations crowding out the action. He also drops references to other universes into the story, for example mentioning a chap called DuQuesne as the original architect of Haven’s plans for conquest (DuQuesne is one of Doc Smith’s villains from the Skylark series) and to the Lunar Revolt (a tribute to TMIAHM) and being a history major, does things like name the Anti Slavery League’s first warship the Pottawatomie Creek.

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