I picked up On Basilisk Station, the first book in the Honor Harrington series, a little while ago because I’m a big fan of space opera, and I realized that I hadn’t read anything from the Honorverse, a now classic sci-fi setting. I wanted to read something from one of the few series in the realm of space opera that so prominently features a female character. Likely due to the success of Game Of Thrones, the Honorverse is another long-lived book series being tapped for recreation in other mediums like games, comics, and film (or television), and I don’t want to be one of those saps who hasn’t read any of the books.
Sadly, for such a classic, this book didn’t hugely impress me. You may have noticed that I called this story a “space opera” in the previous paragraph, and I think part of why I wasn’t such a huge fan is because this is more accurately classified as “military sci-fi” not “space opera”. This means that the book was much more technical (think Tom Clancy in spaaaaace) than a space opera focusing on the minutiae of the technology and military life rather than that highfalutin adventure stuff. I haven’t read much military sci-fi, and part of the reason I picked up the book was to remedy that. But after reading On Basilisk Station, I don’t think I can really count myself a fan of the genre.
The novel opens with Captain Honor Harrington being assigned her latest charge, a light cruiser called Fearless that has been refitted with a strange set of weapon systems that don’t fit with the ship’s tactical role. This is relevant because it forces Harrington to come up with interesting ways to utilize the ship in naval exercises. While her initial adaptation is a striking success, the surprise attack she engineers is only useful once. When their practice partners know what to do, Harrington’s ship is easily defeated. Embarrassed by the lack of success following the ship refit she ordered, Harrington’s commanding officer re-posts her to Basilisk Station, a famous punishment assignment in the navy.
At her new station, Harrington has to win back the trust of her crew who largely blame her for their punishment. She also has to get the area under her command up to snuff, as the previous commander (an old rival of hers) has let it go to hell. While doing this, she manages to uncover a plot that threatens the star system.
The story of this novel unfolds very slowly, which I actually didn’t have a problem with. I feel like nowadays novels have to be immediately snappy and action-packed for people to buy them. Reading this book was a bit nostalgic for me, in that it took its time to get to the real action, much like other “90’s” fantasy and sci-fi books I grew up reading. That isn’t to say that the time during which the story develops lacked tension or was boring, but it wasn’t super action packed.
However, one thing I really liked about this book, is that when the pay-off comes, it is great. The final space battle is brutal, visceral, and almost exactly how I would imagine an exchange like that would take place.
What I wasn’t a huge fan of is actually what I think a lot of people would read this book for, and that was the technical aspects.
Weber gives very long-winded accounts of things like military culture and the nitty-gritty descriptions of how ships and their weapon systems work. I’m not against knowing these things, but oftentimes I felt it bogged down the action. The most glaring example was towards the end, when Harrington is finally about to engage in some space combat…and we get an incredibly long — several pages long — description of the history of hyper space travel and the mechanics of how it works. This did help explain a bit of what was going on more clearly, but I think descriptions like this could have been broken up throughout the story and integrated more naturally into the narrative to make them feel less like plunks.
I also, honestly, felt that the characters were a bit flat. Everyone on the crew of Fearless (or almost everyone) was highly competent at executing their jobs, and all Harrington has to do is draw them out of their shells and get them to work with her. The dialogue between characters felt as technical as the descriptions. It was almost always used to convey ideas or tactics or to advance a plot point rather than to flesh out the characters, and what really separated people in my mind was their specialties rather than any personality quirks they had.
There were also a lot of named characters who had bit parts and created kind of a jumble in my mind. Some of these characters were used to showcase events happening off the ship, and by doing this Weber avoids the “Star Trek trap” where all of the officers on the ship are non-sensically sent planetside on missions. However, Star Trek did this to be economical about its characters because it’s easy for viewers to be overwhelmed by a surplus of random people, and ultimately you want your viewer/reader to be connected to and invested in your leads.
I think Weber could have employed a similar economical approach. While books have more room to explore more characters due to the nature of the medium, it’s still possible to create overload. There are already a lot of characters in On Basilisk Station, as most of the Fearless officers get a reasonable amount of face time. But, especially towards the end, there are a lot of random characters who are specifically given names but who serve no real narrative purpose. They’re just red shirts, and as such not really deserving of names or real “screen time”. Of course in the real world it is important to remember and value all who serve in the military, especially those who lose their lives in action, but as far as telling a story goes, I really don’t need to know the names of every random crew member who shows up in a scene.
Overall, On Basilisk Station wasn’t my favorite book. To be fair, this was Weber’s first novel, and he has written many many books since then. Perhaps I will give Honor Harrington and/or Weber another chance in the future, but I’m not exactly rushing out to get the next book in the series. However, like I said, if this more type of technical writing is your cup-of-tea, then I think you’ll probably want to check this book out if you haven’t already.