Field of Dishonor: The Mary Sue goes Terminator

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David Weber’s Field of Dishonor is the fourth book in the HONOR HARRINGTON series. I have read On Basilisk Station, the first book, but not the intervening ones (though Kat has.) This review may contain spoilers for the previous books.

I liked this book more than On Basilisk Station because there was slightly less lecturing, but the entertainment value is frequently squashed flat by Honor’s perfection and the ease with which things unfold for her. Honor plays the videogame of her fictional life on the Easy setting, even when she goes Terminator on an enemy.

At this point in Honor Harrington’s career she has been promoted to captain in the Star Empire’s navy, acquired a “steadhold” on a planet and been made a peer with a seat in the House of Lords. She is in the throes of an exciting love affair, probably the first serious relationship in her adult life, with a man who is good enough for her. Naturally, these good times aren’t going to last.

A powerful, aristocratic enemy of Honor is court-martialed and she is the most damning witness against him. By rights, he should be executed, but political manipulation leads to him being only cashiered from the Manticoran Royal Navy. He devotes his considerable wealth and power to destroying Honor. Weber telegraphs the plot heavily, with no subtlety or suspense. In one case, I thought Honor’s crew-members should just present one of the characters with a shroud; it was that obvious what was going to happen.

When people Honor loves are killed, she seeks vengeance: coldly, implacably and completely legally since the Star Empire social values allow and approve of dueling. Honor kills the hired killers with no trouble, but the book becomes a fox-and-hound game as her enemy refuses to go out in public, so that she cannot reach him to challenge him. Her solution to this problem, although also telegraphed too obviously earlier in the book, is clever.

Field of Dishonor opens with a review board observing the replay of a huge space battle. Weber probably chose this as a consolation prize for his readers, since the rest of the book takes place mostly planet-side, with a focus on Honor and her duels. The first third of the book, though, drags us through a boring court martial. Given the stakes, this could have been exciting. It wasn’t. Instead of showing us courtroom drama (for example, the accused’s defense would have been interesting) the book indulges in a series of talking heads, on various sides of the issues, all scheming to “game” the outcome.

As I mentioned, there is only one big space battle. This is not to say there isn’t excitement. There is a fist-fight, two duels, an ambush attempt at a trendy restaurant and a Dirty-Dozen style off-the-books operation. Like most things connected to Honor, this operation goes off absolutely without a hitch, just as Honor’s plans for the duels suffer no setbacks and no real obstacles. There are a couple of people standing on the sidelines saying, “Oh, I wish she wouldn’t do that,” but that’s about it for opposition.

Honor also, really, risks nothing of importance by going after her enemy. “Political fallout!” the handwringing by-standers murmur, but Honor says she doesn’t care about politics. There is some military discipline, but the author has given Honor a fun new project on her “steadhold,” and an admiral comes to tell her not to be upset by the discipline thing. All the best brilliant officers have disciplinary actions in their backgrounds, he says.

I found the descriptions of the duels, particularly Honor’s first one, to be suspenseful and compelling; really, the only source of drama in the book. Weber has clearly established that a duel is legal and expected in this society, and her friends are correct to support Honor in her choice. Honor apparently hasn’t dueled before, and is used to Navy pulse weapons, not antique projectile weapons, but since she is a Mary Sue, a couple of hours practice and she is unstoppable with an old-fashioned pistol. This is explained as being kinesthesia or her amazing “situational awareness.”

Like the clandestine, illegal operation her friends run for her, though, the duels are too easy. Her aristocratic adversary is a cowardly weakling, showing no strength of character, and, by extension, he cheapens the important secondary character who is killed. It doesn’t help that Honor Harrington, who talks and acts as if she is just a humble spaceship captain, has the most elaborate support network ever, including the Queen, the Prime Minister, several admirals all the way down to her crew – even a bunch of patriarchal sexists on a completely different planet, who have made an exception in their view of women for Honor, because she is so… Honor. At one point in the book, the Prime Minister interrupts the Queen during an important diplomatic audience to talk about Honor and her duel. The government has just declared war on the People’s Republic, the Prime Minister is presiding over a coalition government that is splintering, yet he and the queen have nothing better to do than debate the personal matters of one spaceship captain.

It is this implausibility that weakens these otherwise entertaining stories. Each of the HONOR HARRINGTON books I’ve read made me recall fondly Bernard Cornwell’s early SHARPE series, historical military novels set during the Napoleonic wars. Sharpe is very much like Honor; he is scrappy, smart, a commoner, an out-of-the-box thinker and a natural leader. He has an aristocratic patron. Sharpe’s strengths often work against him. He was field-promoted and his men don’t trust him because they are used to gentlemen officers. The gentlemen officers shut him out because he isn’t one of them. His “patron” is more likely to put him at risk than help him, and even though he often succeeds, Sharpe is also frequently slapped down for his innovation and brilliance. No generals or peers of the realm stop by to comfort Sharpe when he is demoted or jailed. When he prevails in a book, it feels like he’s earned it. He is not a Gary Stu. If Honor were less of Mary Sue, and more of a person, these books would be much more entertaining.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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  1. I tip my hat to you for making it through book four in the series, Marion — I read On Basilisk Station and just couldn’t muster enough gumption to go any farther. I guess Navy-style milSF just isn’t my cup of tea.

  2. Jana, I have generally liked navy fiction (the historical stuff) that I’ve read, and I’m wondering if that is because it also usually has a nice dash of world history in the blend. But I think that Patrick O’Brien, Bernard Cornwell and the guy who wrote HORNBLOWER don’t spend so much time on talking heads, lecturing about strategy.

    • It’s the lecturing/talking heads that I have so much trouble with. There have to be interesting plot points and spikes of action in between all the arguing in order for me to stay interested.

      I haven’t read enough historical navy fiction to have a strong opinion of it either way, though. Someday I hope to remedy that.

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