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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Top Five SF Novel of the 00's - At All Costs by David Weber (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: At All Costs is the 13th chronologically and the 11th and probably the last mostly-Honor novel from the Honorverse since it essentially ends the original series that started with On Basilisk Station and featured in the first two volumes the last three years of the decades old cold war between Manticore and Haven, while from volume three on we have seen the two actual naval wars spanning some 18 years of the series.

Mission of Honor
which is the next novel that features Honor in a main but not solely-principal role and is the 16th one chronologically is the "dot the i's and cross the t's" end of the original series, but the action has already moved fast and in a different direction that follows from the events of The Shadow of Saganami and Storm from the Shadows.

Also At All Costs has one of the most emotional endings of any novel I have ever read and it still almost makes me cry when I get to the "Fly! Fly, Phoenix!" ending where - as seen on the cover - the author has Honor reading to her household kids from the novel David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd.

"The ancient story's imagery touched her. It always had, but this time, it was different.

"It was the Phoenix," she heard herself read, "it must be the Phoenix!

But it was a new and different Phoenix. It was young and wild, with a fierce amber eye; its crest was tall and proud, its body the slim, muscular body of a hunter, its wings narrow and long and pointed like a falcon's, the great beak and talons razor-sharp and curving. And all of it, from crest to talons, was a burnished gold that reflected the sun in a thousand dazzling lights.

"The bird stretched its wings, shook the ash from its tail, and began to preen itself. Every movement was like the flash of a silent explosion.
"'Phoenix,' David whispered. 'Phoenix.'"Honor saw **** in the Phoenix, heard herself in the ancient David. Heard the yearning, the hunger, the need for the rebirth of all she'd lost, all that had been taken from the universe. "

Before the powerful ending of which I gave just a taste above, we have lots of battles, dastardly assassinations and assassination attempts, a first look at the main villains to come in the "new" series, high stakes intrigue and diplomacy as well as more mundane stuff like pesky journalists, kids, marriages and family life, all in a novel that due to the complete story sub-arc that starts and ends the war narrative - what turns out to be Operation Beatrice - has also the feel of a standalone too despite its "essentialness" in the series.

ANALYSIS: At All Costs is in many ways a typical David Weber tapestry novel with 800+ pages, lots of characters with "speaking parts", maps, Glossary, list of characters, a cd with tons of goodies - eg all previous Honor novels and most if not all of the author's Baen output to the date of the novel in various electronic formats - in the hardcover edition and even an afterword about David and the Phoenix, while in content it features the exquisite worldbuilding that is the trademark of the author, the expected technical info-dumping, action to power two novels as well as a definite ending, but there is one important difference, which crudely put is that for once the bad guys win at least temporarily.

And they do it in quite a subtle way too since in At All Costs the new re-birthed Republic of Haven takes its place fully in the "good guys" corner, while the evil manipulations of the villains from the shadows and the logic of statecraft and war lead to the huge pummeling that Haven and Manticore do to one another here.

So while At All Costs is still a Weberian novel with clear definite sides, it manages also to be a darkly ambiguous one and that was one of the main reasons I consider it the best novel of the series and a top five sf novel of the 00's.

Another reason I loved the novel so much was the ratcheting of tension and stakes throughout and at all levels. While War of Honor was noted for its intrigue and (badly played by authorial intent of course) poker diplomacy rather than action for most of its bulk, its ending was (literally) explosive and it carried through to At All Costs which directly follows it, so we already have the large-scale picture set.

But also in the smaller threads - Honor's secret romance, the unexpected babies, the mystery of the forged diplomatic correspondence or the strangely "conditioned" assassins - the suspense rises inexorably until we arrive to satisfactory resolutions at least in some of this sub-threads, though of course all stands hanging under the shadow of war to the knife with the most powerful fleets known to humanity as firepower and combat effectiveness go, unless somehow diplomacy and reason prevail as it seems possible midpoint through the book...

Overall, At All Costs (#8 on the all time favorites list of mine) is David Weber at his best in a multi-layered tale of intrigue, politics and war, but also love, families and desire for normality, in a universe that while seemingly at the tail end of a brutal but local war is actually on the brink of violent and unexpected total change, though neither Honor, nor Queen Elizabeth, President Eloise Pritchart, or any of our heroes know it yet. However the agents of that change are starting to creep out from the shadows...


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