Grade: Δˡ — A very good, solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre.
The Short Victorious War is the third volume in the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. While it is not the best of the series, it is an absolute must read for anyone who enjoys the Honorverse. It builds tremendously upon the previous two volumes, both in terms of series arc, and in terms of character arc for the eponymous heroine. Despite its somewhat slow start, I enjoyed the book very much, particularly the developments of both Honor Harrington herself, and the world in which she lives in general.
A Far Future interstellar space, where Faster than Light travel is possible through hyperspace and wormholes. Earth exists, but is little more than backdrop, with the main storylines occurring on independent interstellar states primarily populated by the descendents of human colonists. The prime backdrop is clearly (and unabashedly) based on a futurized version of the Napoleonic era Naval combat.
If you are not familiar with Honor Harrington, you are missing one of the most important book series in Military Science Fiction today. Captain of the Line of the Manticorean Royal Navy, Honor Harrington is an unabashed translation of C.S. Forester‘s Horatio Hornblower into a Starship Captain. Though she is sometimes characterized as being “too perfect” in a way that Hornblower himself was not (with even her faults being strengths), it is also likely that had Weber portrayed her with as many faults as Hornblower had, the book would have been criticized as male chauvinist. Instead, Weber has created one of the best known Starship Captains of all time. Indeed, created one of the very few strong female Commanding Officers in any type of literature.
Furthermore, while Honor is most definitely female and feminine throughout the series, she is never defined by that as her primary struggle. Most women portrayed in military service are shown as either “tough-as-any-man” (ala Vasquez from Aliens) or struggling with their gender as a central part of the story line (ala Demi Moore in G.I. Jane). Within Weber’s books, however, Honor is one of a large number of women in the service (seems about an equal number of men to women) and while the fact of her sex is part of who she is, it is no more defining of her character than being a man is defining of James T. Kirk or Horatio Hornblower.
In this volume, however, we do find that her being a woman plays into important subplots within the storyline. Yet, in even in these instances, her womanhood is important, but does not define her, nor the tale. What is more, even though she is technically a victim of the circumstances that occurred (in her past), she is not victimized by them. I cannot say too much more without giving away the storyline, but I admire the way in which Weber both introduces these facts and handles them through the tale.
So why then does this book not get a higher rating? Well first off, go over to my HOW THE GRADING WORKS and you’ll see this is not that kind of a scale.
Once you’ve done that: it boils down to the fact that I don’t think that people who do not like Military Science Fiction will like this book. It focuses on life as the Commanding Officer a military starship, with much of the tale based on the personal interactions and politics of protocol within the service. Secondly, and directly tied to the previous point, as with much MilFic it spends a lot of time discussing ship systems and tactics (well, if you’re going to write about the life of a Starship Captain, you really should talk a bit about ship systems and have a lot of scenes trying to figure out tactics. That is, after all, what Captains do…).
Beyond this, there are some elements of this book that reduce its appeal. In some ways it addresses the complex relationships it presents in a slightly simplistic manner. Now, let me qualify that. In much Military Science Fiction, the antagonists are either BAD or INCOMPETENT, and heroes are GOOD and RIGHT. That is not so much the case with this book. Indeed, the Peeps (enemies in the story), are shown in some detail in this tale, and we begin to see the complex politics in their storylines. Similarly, one of the Manticorean (good guys) Admiral’s in this tale is shown as a generally good Officer who simply makes bad mistakes. Yet, even so, the mistakes made by this officer were readily avoidable and Honor and those who support her are a little too clearly in-the-right for my liking.
Furthermore, Honor’s professional nemesis, Captain Young, really is slightly too villainous; his faults too many, his virtues non-existent. In this manner, the book does fall victim of some of the archetypes described above. What is more, while I have met officers somewhat reminded me of him, I don’t think he is a suitable enemy for our gallant heroine. Had he been a better officer, or less of a total cad… indeed had he any redeeming virtues, I would have liked both this story and the first in the series better.
Finally, this book breaks one of my cardinal rules of Science Fiction: you really shouldn’t introduce a device or technology and then use it in an innovative way to show how clever the main character is, unless it plays with pre-existing knowledge or physics. In this case, Honor comes up with a plan to use an out-of-date weapons platform that I do not remember from any of the previous books in a brand new manner. Had we seen this platform in other books, or had there been a scientific principle that was associated with its novel use, I would have been happy. In this case, however, it reeks just a bit too much of the author coming up with a technology for the sole purpose of showing off how clever the protagonist is.
Having said that, I did enjoy this book. Though it is in some ways little more than a segue into the stories that are yet to come, it still stands alone (though you won’t enjoy this as much if you haven’t read the previous books, and its conclusion clearly sets up the next volume… but it completely avoids a cliffhanger and has solid closure at its end), and most importantly: gives new depths to the main character and the world in which she lives.
I would never advise individuals who dislike Military Science Fiction to try the Honor Harrington books as their first stop, but if you do like MilFic, or the tales of Tall (Space) Ships and the Stars Men (and Women) Steer Them By (or to), this is a great addition to a good series. I would also suggest this series as a read for those who would like to see strong female characters who remain both feminine.
 After all, Hornblower was a self-doubting petulant Naval Officer who was almost crippled by sea-sickness… and that names only a few of his faults. Portray a woman CO in this manner and one might think the author is trying to make her seem incompetent. Thanks to Webbers portrayal of Honor Harrington, however, one might actually now be able to portray female commanders in a more human light… if one is very talented.
 This brings me to a point I seem to keep coming up on: Women CO’s in Science Fiction, or indeed fiction in general. While Honor is perhaps my favorite (at least as I’m writing this), her lack of faults does somewhat make her ring as untrue. Janeway, of Start Trek Voyager fame, sucks — not because she is a strong leader, but because her feminine chiffon nightgown side never married with her Officer side… and no, wearing a chiffon nightgown doesn’t make one seem feminine, it makes one seem silly. Meg Ryan in Courage Under Fire, is good, but we never really see her as much as we see other people’s image of her. Beyond that, they do seem to being portrayed as men with skirts or women struggling with acceptance or command. Still, Honor Harrington, Vasquez and even Janeway paved the road. Perhaps now other authors will take it and create the heroine I’d love to see: a woman with human faults who remains feminine while being in Command. For more on my views on this sort of topic, see http://smartgirlsscifi.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/why-do-we-need-female-aliens-in-fiction/ And read through the rest of her posts while your there. Charlie has one of the most interesting review blogs on the web.
- E-book Review: A Beautiful Friendship (Stephanie Harrington #1) (teleread.com)
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- Lost book by Hornblower author reveals CS Forester’s hidden talents (telegraph.co.uk)
- Review: The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell (csilibrarian.wordpress.com)
- CS Forester’s lost crime novel to be published at last (guardian.co.uk)