Book Review: The Shadow of Saganami by David Weber

The Shadow of Saganami (Honorverse: Saganami Island, #1)The Shadow of Saganami by David Weber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read for the I Just Have to Read More of That Author Reading Challenge, the Military Spec-Fic Reading Challenge, the Giants of Genre: A Long Book Challenge, the Read the Sequel Reading Challenge, and the Space Opera Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Length of book: 897 pages (pocket-book paperback,) not including appendices.

Ah, the enigma of David Weber. This man is never going to win a Hugo or a Nebula, a Locus or a PKD Award. His writing is too all over the place, and he’s not really doing anything that no one else has done before. It’s space opera. I don’t think anyone’s won an award for actual space opera in decades.

But everyone who reads science fiction has read him at least once. It’s damn good space opera, for one thing. For another, it’s a new science fiction book on the shelf at Chapters that you haven’t read yet at least once a year. I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately, but all the so-called science fiction books coming out at the major bookstores appear to be fantasy or centered on video games (usually a bad decision). I have nothing against fantasy – rather enjoy it, actually – but science fiction is definitely under-represented.

That being said, the first half of this book was a slog of epic proportions (and I mean that literally!) Space empire politics all over the place. Gritty details about the personal lives of a whole flock of new characters. Waaaay more detail than I ever wanted about the technology, the strategic analysis of the politics, and the personality problems of a bunch of teapot emperors and two terrorists that I know I’m probably never going to see again, plus a bunch of bad guy political figures and corporatists that I know I’ll probably see far more than I care to. Which you have to slog through in order to understand the rest of the book and possibly the rest of this series, and in order to care about any of the major characters except for Captain Terekov, Lieutenant Abigail Hearne, and Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki (at least, if you’ve read the other Honorverse books).

Of course, the second half of the book is an intense, clever, science fiction thriller that keeps you turning pages much later into the night than you should be, which even leaves you a little choked up at the end.

If he could somehow keep the writing on the level of the second half, everyone would be talking about this book. But the first half needs a machete, a pith helmet, and possibly even a canoe portage to get through. I recognize that he’s setting up not just the rest of the book, but the rest of two or three series within the Honorverse. But did we have to do all of that in a single book? I can’t quite forgive him for it this time. It really hurt the book’s overall rating, despite the brilliant and edge-of-your-seat tension of the second half. (view spoiler) I know for a fact that if this were a first novel and it arrived on a publisher’s desk, they’d file it in the blue box because of the glacial pace of that first half. There has got to be a better way to do this!

However, you should still read it if you like sci-fi, because the second half really is amazing. And I want to know what happens in the rest of the series now, because I care about the fate of the characters, so I guess it did its job.

If you have an interest in military science fiction, Weber is on the required reading list. For good reason. He has an intense understanding of strategy and tactics, the significance of available technology in defining strategy and tactics, and the politics that dictate one course of action over another in military deployment. He shares it with you, and I suppose that’s a good thing. I do learn a thing or two every time I read his work.

He also has a knack for creating likable characters that I would not expect to get along with in real life. The characters that tend to be the strongest are usually some brand of Conservative, while his antagonists tend to be off-their-nut left wingers. I would describe my own politics as being far more sinister than dexter, so it gets on my nerves. On the other hand, he has a talent for showing me that if the political landscape were dominated by true Conservatives instead of the alt-right, I would probably get along with them and be able to come up with workable compromises that satisfied my left-wing needs. To be fair, many of the political antagonists, as opposed to the military ones, in Weber’s worlds do tend to be of the alt-right variety, and they can do some real damage. And there’s Catherine Montagne, a wonderfully stereotypical establishment Democrat heroine (who does not appear in this book except in character conversation). The Berniecrats, however, would all be terrorists and agitators in the Honorverse. So, I guess the Canadian left wing would be too.

I mention this because there are two terrorists who are significant antagonists in the book. One is a left wing agitator whose “liberal” policies are a front for a distressing self-righteous bloodlust. The other is a futuristic cowboy stubborn right wing Libertarian who doesn’t want to see restrictions on his freedoms. The first has the personality of a blue collar revolutionary, the second of guys who take over parks because they don’t think the federal government has the right to tell them what to do. Naturally it’s the first one who doesn’t seem to care how many people she injures with her cyberattacks and planted bombs; while the second goes out of his way to not hurt anyone.

That being said, there are some wonderfully Progressive things that Weber does with his books as well. For instance, only the “backwater worlds” do not have cultures of gender equality. (Policies aren’t generally required, because it’s so culturally ingrained that people are surprised and a bit amused when silly gender issues get in the way.) Honor Harrington, his major protagonist, is of mixed Anglo-Asian ancestry. And the hereditary royal family of Manticore is black. My only complaint is that the culture is still very Anglo-Saxon in his future. We have a wide variety of Christian worlds of various stripes. We even have an atheist one here or there. So where’s the Muslim worlds? Or the Hindu worlds? Or the Jewish worlds? Or the Buddhist ones?

Also, I see absolutely no LGBTQ characters at all. I wonder why? I know it can’t be Weber’s religious beliefs because he’s an Anglican minister, and the Anglicans do not discriminate against LGBTQ people (anymore, in their policies at any rate). Maybe he just hasn’t noticed. He’s definitely not the best at writing romantic relationships anyway! Or perhaps, since there is widespread genetic engineering technology available, maybe the ancestors of his present cultures decided to wipe those sorts of things out in the womb as an aberration. I would like to know which, however.

I’ve probably digressed considerably here, but it’s important to understand an author’s bias (and we all have them; for instance, there seems to be no religion at all in the Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Vorkosigan Saga, which I doubt will be the case in the far future of humanity) when reading about the world they’ve created. Especially when it comes to extended political dissertations like this.

Overall, I have to settle on three stars, because I loved the parts that I liked, but so much of it dragged so badly. I would recommend reading it a bit like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. About half of the book was about the politics that led up to the Paris uprising that is the center of the plot. But how much of that did we really need? Maybe it’s better to skim those sections. Ultimately, the story is about what people do and think and feel in the middle of the politics. I think sometimes Weber somewhat forgets that.

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