On Basilisk Station: Honor Harrington is the biggest Mary Sue in space

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDavid Weber On Basilisk StationOn Basilisk Station by David Weber

Honor Harrington, newly-promoted Captain in the Queen’s Royal Manticoran Navy, has taken command of her first space cruiser, Fearless. Sadly, she and her crew have been deployed to Basilisk Station, a low-status drudge assignment that mostly involves checking cargoes for contraband. Morale aboard Fearless is low, but things are about to change. Unbeknownst to Manticore, The Republic of Haven, which hopes to better its economy by conquering resource-wealthy planets, plans to invade Manticore by way of the wormhole junction terminus at Basilisk Station. Can Honor and her crew uncover the plot and save Manticore?

David Weber’s On Basilisk Station is classic space opera loaded with lots of exposition about military tactics, weaponry, hyperspace, calculation of acceleration rates, etc., etc. This isn’t my favorite genre of science fiction, but I was hoping that a female protagonist might make it more fun.

Not really. At least, not in this case. Honor Harrington is admirable — she’s smart, proud, loyal, and completely reliable. She doesn’t back down in the face of opposition. She figures out all the stealthy plans of her enemies and she gets the job done. All the bad guys hate her and all the good guys love her (that’s how you can tell if they’re good guys or bad guys). In fact, Honor is so perfect that she’s downright dull. She’s the biggest Mary Sue in space. She hardly even flinches when she has to make the choice between her duty and the lives of her crew.

Honor’s courage and determination work out in the end only because she happens to correctly guess what the bad guys are up to. There’s no mystery for the reader, who knows Haven’s plans, but I was never convinced that Honor made the right judgments based on the facts she had. Her decisions were based on strings of guesses she made under the assumption that she understood the bad guys’ logic. For that reason, I couldn’t respect her cold-hearted commands, or her responses to their consequences.

Perhaps part of my problem was Allyson Johnson’s narration in the audio version (Brilliance Audio). Though she did a good job with most of the characters, her reading of the many expository portions of the text was dull (perhaps it was difficult to make this part interesting!). But my main complaint is that she used a high-pitched lilting voice for Honor. Weber’s text mentions that Honor is a soprano, but the cheery voice was probably unsuitable for the stressful scenes in which Honor has to make her harsh and deadly commands. Her seeming lack of grief, or even of any struggle at all, makes it hard to relate to Honor. It makes it hard to like her. But I think the narrator may have done a disservice to the text, and I’m willing to give Honor another chance (mainly because I already own the next few volumes in the series).

On Basilisk Station would have been a better book if Weber had spent less time explaining space-battle tactics and more time letting us get to know Honor Harrington. She feels cold and severe, but I don’t think this is really Weber’s intention. He just hasn’t let us in yet. I am hoping this improves in future installments and that Honor Harrington will start to feel more real.

~Kat Hooper

On Basilisk Station by David Weber science fiction book reviewsOriginally published in 1993, David Weber’s military SF novel On Basilisk Station introduced the now-beloved character Honor Harrington, a plucky member of the Manticoran Royal Navy. The HONOR HARRINGTON series is ongoing with thirteen books and a series of spin-offs and anthologies.

Honor lives in a galactic empire called the Star Kingdom at least two thousand years in our future. Strangely, the Star Kingdom, centered in the Manticore system, looks a lot like early 19th century Britain. There are aristocracy and royalty — Queen Elizabeth III is on the throne — and a House of Lords and a House of Commons. Dueling is legal and approved. The military — specifically the navy, because apparently there is no army — is much the same as it has always been: subject to political corruption at the highest levels, filled with valiant, competent, loyal, honest and wise-cracking fighters on the front lines. Honor does not come from aristocracy, but she graduated from the academy and is a newly-minted commander, with her own ship, the tiny and outdated Fearless.

Honor soon offends one of those military-political types and is exiled to Basilisk Station, a back-water where the royal navy generally sends misfits and has-beens. This is kind of a strange decision, since the Medusan system has vital strategic importance as a wormhole junction, and the Star Kingdom’s neighboring empire, the People’s Republic of Haven, is becoming more aggressive. Those silly politicians! They never do anything right.

Once there, with an inadequate ship and a demoralized crew, Honor finds out that things can get even worse. Her worst enemy from the Academy, Lord Pavel Young, is her commanding officer, and he sets her up with a series of impossible orders. Clearly, Young hopes to see her fail…. but he’s reckoned without Honor Harrington!

There is quite a lot to like here. Although the book dragged at the beginning with way too much exposition and a couple of meaningless space battles (truly meaningless, they were exercises), by about a third of the way in, when the crew of Fearless dig in and work to fix the problems they’ve encountered, the book got intriguing.

I liked quite a few of the secondary characters, but I had a hard time warming up to Honor. Honor is perfect. Oh, no, I misspeak; Honor is not perfect. She thinks she’s bad at math; but she’s wrong. She’s actually good at math. The “good” characters in the book take to Honor at once, even if they don’t know why; “bad” or incompetent characters instinctively dislike her because, as a paragon, she is a glaring reminder of their own deficiencies. Weber stacks the deck for her by giving the readers a sneak peek into the Haven war room, so that we know the evil People’s Republic’s plans; therefore, when Honor makes intuitive leaps that are unsupported by the evidence, she seems brilliant instead of reckless and irresponsible.

There is also too much un-needed exposition. Before the naval exercises, Honor thinks about the grav-lance that has been installed on Fearless. This is a weapon that works well in theory but has huge logistical problems in practice. We spend seven pages in her point of view while she reviews mentally why it’s a bad idea.

Later, we meet Klaus Hauptman, a wealthy man from Manticore. Although he at least the fifth generation of wealth in his family, Hauptman thinks of himself as a “self-made man.” Weber takes four and a half pages to explain this. Later he takes five pages to tell us that the Tellerman wave is a gravity wave that used to tear apart starships; now, thanks to the Warshawski Wings, ships can ride the gravity wave. There is too much explanation like this about things that matter only slightly to the story, and which could be easily summarized.

While ships are described in detail, Weber shows us little to nothing of the culture of the indigenous life-forms on Medusa, who are going to play a serious role in the story by the end of the book. We get a physical description and a set-up for the conspiracy that happens planet-side, and nothing else.

The book ends with a dramatic battle in space. Again, we’ve been primed to see that Honor has made all the right assumptions, but her “right assumptions” and extreme behavior lead to the deaths of more than half of her ship’s crew. I’m not sure that this makes her a good commander.

I’m not rating this book very highly. I also know that many people love this book and Honor is an icon to many. I think the 19th-century navy model is an interesting one, but with the structural choices and the undeveloped main character, this book didn’t work for me overall.

~Marion Deeds

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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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 really enjoyed the Honor Harrington series! I thought she was too kick-ass to be a Mary Sue, but I do read a lot of cozy mysteries so really, I felt right at home with the space opera setting/mystery/intrigue. Like a lot of series, they can get repetitive, but the first three or so were great reads.

  2. Hi Maria,
    The Honor Harrington series is really popular, so I know I’m a minority. As I mentioned, I also think that the audio version which I listened to didn’t help.

  3. Oh, audio. Yanno, sometimes audio can be so blooming slow. It take a fast-paced book to keep me interested in audio. I’ve listened to books that I’m sure I wouldn’t mind in print form, but audio requires a good, clear voice and … an completely awesome story. It’s harder for me to be drawn in.

    I haven’t read an Honor in years. But in college, they were just the thing. :>)

  4. Sometimes audio is too slow, but I can adjust the speaking rate without distorting the voice with Windows Media Player and the Audible app I use. In this case, the narrator’s voice was a little too detached and monotonous.

  5. @Maria, that happens to me too. I have some kind of listener’s block–unless the story and the reader’s voice grab me, my mind will start to wander.

  6. I recently tried to read this book, and your review hits the nail on the head for me. Honor is just annoyingly perfect, and the story was like a long freight train slowly gaining speed. DNF

  7. My thoughts exactly. I hated Honor in the first two books.
    However, I am currently reading book three because I already had it and I’d like to get this series reviewed. She is much more likable in book three, but I think she is STILL “annoyingly perfect” so far (half way through). I already think I know how she’s going to save the day due to her brilliant strategy and refusal to back down.

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