I finished A Rising Thunder, by David Weber, recently. Well, I say finished; really, I devoured it, covering its four hundred and sixty-four pages in about three days. Even for an inveterate book-lover like myself, such progress is unusual, a testament to the hook Weber's 'Honorverse' series has on me. But when I sat down to write this review, I was struck by the fact that, really, this is a very difficult book to review. Because while it is a book, it's not really a story.
It's actually been a fairly long time since Weber wrote a straight, stand-alone story about his heroine. The first few books could be taken as fully-realized tales set within a expanding world, but by the fifth book, In Enemy Hands, Weber had clearly been sucked into the ever-growing scope of his own universe. Not that that's a bad thing; Weber has created a sprawling fictional galaxy of hostile multi-planetary star nations, most of them trying to play empire at the others' expense, populated by politicians, spies, and naval officers who run the gamut from incompetent to genius and from vile to heroic, regardless of what side of any border they happen to be. The story has grown from a single star system desperately trying to escape conquest by a massive, hopelessly corrupt empire to an alliance of new friends and old enemies all trying to, well, escape conquest by a massive, hopelessly corrupt empire. But, you know, a different one from the first time around. And with that growth have come new planets, new fleets, new commanders, new politicians, new enemies and new allies, all of whom have to be checked in on every now and then to advance the larger, galactic-level plot.
Which is to say, the individual books that attempt to get across the movements of dozens of characters across a handful of states have largely fractured, turning from self-contained narratives to somewhat arbitrarily-selected dispatches. Waiting for the latest Honorverse book, I can't help wondering if this is how people felt waiting for the latest chapter of Dickens' works to be published in the newspapers.
By embracing that sense of serialization, Weber has been able to keep the story moving pretty smoothly. Unfortunately, he's done that at the expense of the actual divisions of the books themselves. The latest one, A Rising Thunder, is the worsts offender; it essentially starts and ends at completely arbitrary points. It's not the only one, though. Ever since the issue with the Solarian League arose, with the exception of the Shadow of Saganami/Storm from the Shadows spinoff series, the books have transitioned away from 'building a story around, and to, a singular confrontation' and towards 'telling the latest serial instalment'. Which is what makes reviewing modern Honorverse stories difficult, because it's become the equivalent of reviewing the chapters of a book.
Still, there are a few things you can say about it. The Honorverse books, after all, are marked by a few recurring themes, and within the series you can judge the worth of a book by how well it hits those themes. And within that metric, A Rising Thunder does pretty well. It carries on the evolution of the Manticorn Alliance, the trials and tribulations of which have been a constant issue, and builds on the growth of the Republic of Haven, particularly the alliance between the two of them that kicked off at the end of Mission of Honor. It builds up the threat of the Mesan Alignment, particularly their nanotech mind-control abilities. And it gives hints that, like the corrupt Peoples Republic before it, the Solarian League does actually have some competent, honorable individuals working within its borders. None of them seem in the kind of key positions that Theisman, Giscard and Tourville enjoyed, yet, but if the League is serious about fighting the Manticoran Alliance there should be plenty of dead men's shoes to step into quite quickly.
Unfortunately, A Rising Thunder is rather bigger on political manoeuvring than it is on space combat. There is one major space battle in the book, about two-thirds of the way through, and it breaks very sharply from the Honorverse's tradition of 'outmanned, outgunned, but not out-thought'. Rather than being a matter of tactical genius overcoming crushing odds, the Manticorans enjoy total intelligence on the enemy force, the defensive position, superior technology and superior numbers. It's a well-executed plan, and it has Honor's trademark cunning, but it lacks the thrill of Terekhov's battle at Monica or Rozsak at Torch. Worse, despite being billed as 'an Honor Harrington Adventure' and falling in the main line of the series, that is, the books that are supposed to be about Honor herself, the woman doesn't appear until over a hundred pages into the story, and her role is extremely minor given the scope of the story now being told. It may be that, with the series having grown so expansive, and Honor having attained such advanced rank, she can no longer be sent on the kind of desperate missions that made the earlier books such pleasures, but if that's the case then perhaps she should be retired from the novel series in favour of the Crown of Slaves/Torch of Freedom and Shadow of Saganami/Storm from the Shadows storylines.
A Rising Thunder isn't a bad instalment in the series. It moves the story along nicely, it introduces some characters who are likely to play important roles down the line, and while it never comes to an open fight, there are some well-written, tense moments of Manticoran naval ships trying to get out of, and get the Manticoran Merchant Marine out of, Solarian space. But the actual space battle is a one-sided and rather dull affair, the Alignment is still a giant cipher of moustache-twirling villains, and the character who's billed on the cover has relatively little page time. For those already invested in the series it's a nice addition, but I could never in good conscience recommend a first-time Honorverse reader pick up this book.