Book Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

On_Basilisk_StationOn Basilisk Station is the first in the sweeping Honor Harrington series.  This is space opera at it’s finest, in the tradition of earthbound classics like the Horatio Hornblower series and Master and Commander.

Honor Harrington is a Commander in the Royal Manticoran [Space] Navy.  In this series, which takes place in the far future, planets and planetary systems jockey for power in ways analogous to those of the major powers in the Regency period on Earth.  Honor is stated by the author to be inspired by Horatio Hornblower and Admiral Nelson.

In this book, the first of Honor’s many adventures, she is assigned a ship with a newfangled weapon that can’t work effectively in combat.  She makes it work anyway and is assigned to Basilisk Station as a sort of unspoken punishment.  Basilisk Station is a remote trading station where the Navy has failed to follow through on its many responsibilities.  Honor is desperately under shipped and understaffed but she goes about whipping things into shape, winning the loyalty of her crew, and becoming involved in complicated political intrigue.

This series has been running since On Basilisk was first published in 1993.  It’s easy to see how this series could run pretty much forever without ever running out of steam.  It’s created such a complex system of space travel and sweeping empires that other characters could have their own stories long after Honor retires (or gets blown up, heaven forbid).

For these same reasons, it’s easy to see why this series is beloved.  The plot is complex, the maneuvers are described in loving detail, and the Navy atmosphere is well-rendered.  It’s refreshing that in this book, Honor does not have any romantic relationships.  As an avid romance reader, I’m certainly not opposed to romance, but I get tired of the automatic assumption in many stories that if there’s a woman and there’s a man than sex is sure to follow.  I gather that Honor does get to fall in love later in the series, but it’s clear that her romantic life does not define her.

I only have one problem with this book, and it’s a big one.  In this book, one of Honor’s duties is to help protect the planet Medusa.  Medusa has an indigenous population of people who are at approximately a Bronze Age level of technology.  They are treated as people to be protected, used, manipulated, or killed.  They are discussed with a high level of casual racism.  We never meet one of these indigenous Medusans, never hear one speak for him or herself.  They are plot points – either incompetent, violent, or both.

This is ugly in any context but it’s even uglier if you consider that if Honor’s home system, Manticore, is analogous to Regency England, then Medusa is analogous to India or Africa under English colonization.  There’s no sense of awareness on either the parts of the characters or the author that this diminishment of an entire planet of people to childish, stoned killers might be bad.  This is especially sad if you reflect that even English writers during colonization, even very racist writers, sometimes gave indigenous people a voice and some compassion or understanding.  For instance, Rudyard Kipling wrote some appalling racist things (“The White Man’s Burden” for one) but he still managed to also portray an Indian water bearer as a hero in “Gunga Din” – one who is stated to be superior to the English officers he works for.

If Rudyard Kipling could manage to write about people from India with some scrap of humanity and respect, however little, than I’d expect an author from 1993 to be able to write about imperialism in a way that acknowledges the uglier aspects of imperialism.  It’s not that I think Weber owes us a utopia.  My problem is that Weber doesn’t seem to notice that one aspect of his book (the colonization of Medusa) is dystopian.

I haven’t read further into the series, but I have a sense that the problem with the portrayal of the Medusans may vanish simply because Honor and co. don’t stay at Basilisk Station.  This may be yet another case of me having picked the one book in a n otherwise inoffensive series with racist elements.  I’d say anyone who enjoyed The Master and Commander Series, by Patrick O’Brian, or The Vorksignian Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold, will probably very much enjoy the Honor Harrington books. These books are driven less by character and relationships than by politics, world-building, strategy, and tactics so prepare to read the books with some thought and attention to detail – no skimming!

Book Review: Fortune’s Pawn, by Rachel Bach

cover of Fortune's Pawn

Fortune’s Pawn is the first book in The Paradox Series, and it is absolutely yummy if you are into light space opera with a tough, smart heroine, some romance, and lots of action.  Which I am, so…yum!

Devi is a mercenary who hopes to reach a high status position as a Devestator, one of the King’s guards.  In order to get promoted, Devi accepts a job guarding a ship that always seems to get into trouble.  The ship has an irritable captain, a mechanic who slaps patches onto the hull with maniacal cheer, a doctor who is a species of alien known for eating humans, and a silent, mysterious young girl who plays chess by herself all the time.  The ship also has a very sexy cook who has lots of secrets.  And, true to its reputation, the ship and/or its crew seems to be in trouble almost all of the time.

I like that the author respects the reader’s intelligence enough to slip in world-building without spelling things out at length.  This world seems solid, dirty, and real, with complex but believable social structures.  And Devi is a great character.  Although Devi is often rescued, it’s not because she’s a girl.  Her competence as a fighter is well established and she only requires assistance when she is fighting an extremely unusual opponent, an extremely large number of opponents, or both.    She reminded me a bit of Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but she’s much more mentally healthy than Starbuck.  Not that she doesn’t have her neurosis, but on the whole she’s socially adept, confident, and not self-destructive.  

The pace of the book is good – there are moments of calm and conversation, there’s humor, there’s tons of action, and some hefty mysteries for Devi to solve.  I don’t think this book is a genre-buster – if you are not interested in science fiction books set in space with lots of action, then give this book a pass.  but if you like tough warrior heroines, sexy, mysterious, kind heroes, and a strong supporting cast in an interesting, action packed setting, don’t miss this book.  My one caveat is that it ends on something of a cliffhanger, so be prepared for that.

Can we just spend a moment to pay proper respect to the cover art?  See what that is?  A picture of a woman, that does not focus on her boobs or her butt!  I love this cover art so very much.  Over on orbit.net you can read this entry by the illustrator (Kirk Benshoff) about how he made the art for the series.  It’s beautiful, it fits the concept, it fits the character, it tells the reader at a glance who the book is about.  Kudos, Kirk Benshoff.