Review: Field of Dishonor

Once again, I’ve spent another few days with David Weber reading Field of Dishonor and regardless of how the series continues, I think he’s finally come up with something truly great.

I fully understand the series is supposed to be a space opera–the painstaking descriptions of galactic fleets, impeller drives, and relativistic weapons reinforces that point admirably–but there was precious little of that here. This time, it’s all an exclusive font of character building, and the Harrington universe is much stronger than if Honor had simply defeated another immanent naval threat.

In many ways, this book is just as much about Pavel Young as Honor Harrington. To be sure, Pavel is nearly one-dimensional in his blind and comically overstated hatred and incompetence, suffering a court martial and other indignities earned only through sheer cowardice and brazen abuse of his birthright. Yet you almost have to feel for the guy, since he’s caught in a Honor Harrington novel on the wrong side. This ensures he, mysteriously, continuously encounters her in a navy staffed by tens of thousands of officers and hundreds of ships. What started out as a lessen in humility completely unlearned, transformed through repeated encounters with Honor, into a chain of unfortunate setbacks that might drive anyone mad. The guy just wanted to be a douchebag on his own time, but somehow the only real person that had ever rebuffed him, began appearing constantly, and every attempt to gain retribution met only with utter failure.

By the time we reach the fourth novel, he’s finally at his lowest and most desperate. From his perspective, even though he grudgingly realizes it’s all his fault, she’s still a relentless foil, a demon sent to constantly harangue and destroy him. At the same time, he really does win in the end, regardless of how catastrophically his own story concludes. It’s that kind of tenacious triumph that really defines these books; nothing is really ever resolved halfway. One of the admirals even complains Honor never does anything halfway after she essentially throws away her career to strike back at Young. To think that she dismissed him a third of the way through the book as “someone else’s problem now,” proves her own naive trust in justice, and that not even our heroine is perfectly capable.

For once, Honor is vulnerable, though she covers it with her usual icy calm. For once, Honor has lost–not just a military engagement, but her personal life falls to shambles, she’s politically ruined, and even her commission is removed. She’s left with nothing but her medals and memories of her exploits and betrayals. This book leaves a bitter taste not because of how she ends up, but because politics once again proves her Achilles Heel. Through the whole book, it’s obvious and clear she’s doing the right thing–what the system should have done in the first place–and nearly every other character is sympathetic to her plight, yet somehow this never actually saves her. The fact that right and wrong can end badly for the protagonist is where Weber finally shows his mettle. The world isn’t always sunshine and roses; even when you’re doing everything right, there will be someone there to bring you down. Whether it be through misguided aims, sheer avarice, or posturing, even a hero can be a scapegoat.

That’s what makes Field of Dishonor a tragedy. The formula I mentioned in my review of The Short Victorious War is effectively discarded, and several more important machinations complicate and enhance the universe while Haven experiences military and political tumult as the government recovers from the coup. All of this, makes it the strongest addition to the series thus far, and I hope Weber can maintain this kind of momentum.