On Basilisk Station
Series: Honor Harrington 1
Reviewed date: 2010 Sep 28
I've heard a lot about the Honor Harrington series. When I saw that the first book is available online at the Baen Free Library, I gave it a try. On Basilisk Station is a serious piece of the subgenre called military science fiction. Some people love it, others (like me) are ambivalent; it comes down to whether the storytelling and the science is any good. This book is wildly uneven. Parts of it gripped me so that I couldn't stop reading; other parts grated so much that I nearly gave up in disgust.
Captain Honor Harrington of the Royal Manticoran Navy takes command of the recently refitted Fearless. Its armament has been stripped out and replaced with an experimental grav lance. In a series of war games, the grav lance turns out to be a colossal failure. Harrington and Fearless are shuffled out of the way and assigned patrol duty at Basilisk Station.
Basilisk Station is an impossible assignment. Harrington is expected to inspect all cargo going through the Basilisk terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction. Additionally, she must assist the base on the nearby planet Medusa. And finally, she must patrol the entire star system to protect against invasion. She has been set up to fail.
But she doesn't. She's a hard-nosed, tough-as-nails commander who takes no guff. Her crew, accustomed though they are to laziness and low expectations, love her. The attitude of worship toward Harrington is unrealistic and frankly, almost ruins the story.
Of course, Basilisk Station will come under attack. Unknown to Harrington--but completely known to us, the reader, because it was all explained in the prologue--the Republic of Haven is planning a sneak attack on Basilisk Station as their first act of a new expansionist war plan. Harrington's assignment to Basilisk Station threatens to upset their plans, because Harrington, unlike previous commanders, is actually competent.
And that brings us to one of my main problems with the novel. The Republic of Haven has planned an entire war campaign based on the assumption that the Manticoran commanders assigned to Basilisk are criminally incompetent. When Harrington shows that she actually intends to enforce regulations like inspecting cargo, the whole plot unravels. The author knows this, so he has one of the Haven bigwigs bewail that their strategy is based less on Havenite subtlety but more on Manticoran incompetence. I'm sorry, but commenting on it doesn't give you a free pass. It's a huge, unforgivable problem that strains the limits of the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.
All that aside, the final chapters of the book are riveting. Once Harringon uncovers the plot, the Havenite warship Sirius that has been hiding in orbit around Medusa makes a run for it. Harrington and Fearless give chase. The ensuing battle--the tiny, declawed Fearless against a large, fully-armed Havenite warship--is riveting. There's no way that tiny Fearless can survive against an enemy ship that is superior in every way.
Unfortunately, it's also excruciating. It goes like this: Sirius fires lots of torpedoes at Fearless, but Fearless's defensive countermeasures are super-effective and stop them all. Fearless returns fire with a few measly torpedoes (all she has), and Sirius miscalculates and ends up getting hit. Then Sirius pounds Fearless until she's half-destroyed, but Fearless keeps coming. Sirius pounds Fearless some more, and Fearless keeps coming. Sirius completely disables Fearless, turns around for the kill shot, and Fearless guts her with the grav lance. Game over.
For all the talk about Fearless being outclassed by Sirius, it's clear that it's actually Sirius that is outclassed. She is bigger, but her technology is woefully out of date compared to what Fearless carries. Fearless manages to kill Sirius despite the fact that nearly all her weaponry has been stripped to make room for the experimental grav lance. Had Fearless been conventionally armed, the battle would have lasted only a few minutes. Only the fact that Fearless has been rendered almost helpless gave Sirius any chance at all.
And yet, despite all that, the battle sequence gripped me. It's really, really good. I can't say the same for the rest of the book, unfortunately. On Basilisk Station rates only a two.