Flag in Exile (Honor Harrington 5), David Weber

Baen, 1995, 480 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-3575-3

(Read as an eBook, from the War of Honor CD-ROM)

It’s become customary to introduce every new instalment of the Honor Harrington series with some variant on “Honor is Back!” But this time around, the twist is that she is not back. Exiled from the Manticoran Navy after her actions in the previous volume, she’s back “home” as the steadholder of a brand-new territory on Grayson, the planet she managed to save in The Honor of the Queen. She may not be a ranking officer of her majesty’s navy anymore, but she keeps busy: Running a stead takes a lot of time and energy, especially when she’s the first-ever female steadholder in what is still a deeply conservative society. Some people clearly aren’t happy about that particular achievement…

Meanwhile, the Royal Manticoran Navy is still fighting the war initiated by the eeevil socialist Havenites two volumes ago. The engagement seems protracted enough to last for several more novels, and to make things worse, the Havenites are planning on attacking Grayson. As it naturally turn out, Honor Harrington is ready for them given her newly-acquired commission as an admiral of the Grayson Navy…

After the successful non-military focus of Field of Dishonor, Weber takes an hybrid approach in plotting Flag in Exile: While the military aspect comes back along with Honor’s admiralty, the political conflicts are also present in her efforts to defend her stead against the more backward elements of Grayson’s elite. Cynics will merely point out that this is like recycling the best bits of the second and fourth novels (complete with a duel and a big space engagement), but when it works, it works: There’s no need to be a spoilsport.

It’s not as if there isn’t something new to gnaw upon: Honor Harrington’s gradual apprenticeship as a steadholder is a new element, and we get to see her spend quite a lot of time in this uncharacteristic environment. Maybe too much time is spent describing the intricacies of Grayson politics, though the payoff is immense. The sheer boo-hiss perversity of her opponent’s plans are a marvel of audience manipulation, and so is the way she fights back against them. For a second volume in a row, she has to match wits with experts in martial fields not of her choosing. Unsurprisingly, she comes out ahead, though Weber actually manages to make us believe in how it’s done: We go from dreadful certainty of failure to triumphant (and inevitable) victory in only a few pages, an achievement that may have been impossible for another less experienced reader.

Then it’s off to space for the routine big space battle, the issue of which is a foregone conclusion. Worth noting this time around, though, is the good portrayal of performance under duress: seldom have we seen Harrington placed under so much stress, and the constant pain in which she has to operate is well-described. Also amusing is the return of the second book’s antagonist, this time as a colleague of Harrington in this new Grayson Navy. Cute.

All told, it’s another pretty good entry in the series, with Weber’s usual flair for good characters and clear prose carrying the series along as much as the plot and the overall arc. By this point in the series, it’s obvious that this is closer to an episodic TV soap than a feature film in terms of dramatic construction: The series can afford to take forever in setting up a few elements given that they’ll play out over a lengthy period. (The Havenite War, for instance, seems to be good for at least another trilogy) Naturally, this episodic nature strengthens even more the importance of recurring elements: We’re now at a point where we’re expected to recognize characters as they come back in Harrington’s life.

These are certainly not bad things if you’ve got all the novels so far (say, as provided by the CD-ROM bundled with the Hardcover edition of War of Honor), but they may be a dampening factor for everyone contemplating to dive into the series. Hey, it’s well-worth it… but be prepared to spend a lot of time in Harrington’s universe.

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