In Enemy Hands, David Weber

Baen, 1997, 544 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-57770-0

We readers are a sadistic bunch. Oh, we seem mild-mannered enough, sitting there with a book in our hands, the occasional smirk on our lips. But in our heads, ah, it’s a completely different attitude. We like characters, but we want a reason to like them. We want to see how they react when rocks are thrown at them. We’re not interested in some happy-but-dull guy without a care in the world; we want to see explosive action, heart-wrenching drama, death-defying adventure and against-all-odds comebacks. Make no mistake; everyone loves a happy ending, but such endings are meaningless without some prior suffering.

David Weber certainly belongs to the rock-throwing school of characterization. His flagship heroine, Honor Harrington, is a character defined by crises. In novel after novel, she’s thrown in impossible situations, but always emerges triumphant as both an officer and a lady.

Still, apart from the occasional curve ball in volume 4 and 5, Honor has always done pretty well in military engagements. Hadn’t lost a fight despite some tense moments. This changes in this seventh volume of the Harrington saga: In Enemy Hands. For the Harrington fan, three noteworthy things happen in this novel.

First, the Admiral of White Haven is gets a sudden crush on Honor. Much eeewing ensues as readers realize that he’s a ninety-years old admiral of the fleet married to a crippled ex-actress and she’s a forty-year old captain with only one previous lover to her credit. Further eeewing ensues as we realize that Weber almost never does anything for kicks or occasional passing mentions, which means it’ll probably be a more-or-less permanent fixture of the series until the death of one of them. Egawd. Now that’s a promising thought for the next novels. (Almost as promising is the mention of the treecats engaging in colonial expansion, ensuring that we’ll see much more of them in books to come.)

Second: the ongoing Manticore/Haven war is not going well for the Manticoran empire. Despite their superior educational system, superior technology, superior moral fortitude and, well, overall superiority to those evil Havenite socialists (whose name are more French than ever, despite their Soviet-style regime), the Manticorans are not making any significant progress in the war, which threatens to turn into a contest of attrition. And that’s a type of the battle the Manticorans can’t win. Everyone is getting a little bit desperate, and that, in no small part, is why Honor is brought back in full service.

Finally, —and this is the biggie that relegates even the White Haven romance to the background—, something new and delightful happens to Honor at mid-book this time around: She loses. She surrenders. She’s taken prisoner. She’s stuffed in a vessel by a power-mad Havenite, tortured (along with her treecat), abused, judged guilty of whatever crime is required to kill her and sent to her execution. Woo!

That’s when the readers’ sadism come in: After books of successful space battles in which Honor wins by the tiniest margins, it’s somewhat of a welcome change to see her fail at something, for once. By this time in the series, she’s such a super-woman character that a little reader backlash is almost inevitable. For the first time since her Grayson exile, the novel doesn’t follow the usual template.

Unfortunately, the price to pay for this new development is to spend far more time with the Havenite antagonists and as usual any time spent away from Honor is usually time wasted. (There is, however, a neat subplot involving Officer Harkness.) In Enemy Hands is never terribly dull (Weber’s writing style is brisk enough to keep us interested, no matter what), but it’s hard to avoid the thought that in terms of density of action, Weber’s last few Harrington books are suffering from a great deal of over-writing.

Oh well: It’s not as if we can stop now. As far as this volume’s conclusion is concerned, what you think will happen, happens. By the end of the book (the clearest cliffhanger the series ever had), the situation is still critical (Baen has to sell the next novel, after all) but Honor has once again given one big black eye to Haven. On to the next story!

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