“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” – Rick Blaine, Casablanca, 1941.
I wish I could honestly say I did.
A Beautiful Friendship is set in the same universe as Weber’s Honor Harrington books, but several hundred years earlier in the timeline. The Manticore system has only recently been settled, and along with her parents, twelve-year-old Stephanie Harrington has moved across the galaxy to the wilds of the Manticoran planet of Sphinx, home to seasons lasting several years, an intemperate climate, unstudied biota, and relatively few humans.
An exceptionally bright twelve-year-old, Stephanie Harrington had her future planned out back home. It was going to start with a junior forestry internship but there’s no such thing as junior forestry interns on Sphinx, and the dangerous Sphinxian wildlife means Stephanie isn’t supposed to wander the bush on her own. But Stephanie has no intentions of letting parental restrictions stop her from making discoveries. Her curiosity, and a certain amount of adolescent recklessness, result in an encounter with a deadly Sphinxian hexapuma and the discovery of Sphinx’s very own native sentient species: treecats.
While adventurous young treecat Climbs Quickly and Stephanie begin to explore the depth of their empathic bond in the wake of their encounter with the hexapuma, events conspire to land the small, fluffy, intelligent, telempathic and surprisingly lethal treecats squarely in the path of new peril. The danger this time is of human manufacture: the discovery of a sentient species on Sphinx puts potentially land and mineral grants at risk, and greed, as we all know, is the wellspring of so very many sins. And unscrupulous interstellar luxury pet dealer Tennessee Bolgeo sees great potential profit in the treecats themselves. Stephanie Harrington and Climbs Quickly find themselves at the intersection of two worlds, human and treecat. And it’s up to them to shape their future.
A Beautiful Friendship is divided into two approximately equal halves. Part One, “Unexpected Meetings,” is a lightly revised and expanded version of the novella “A Beautiful Friendship” which appeared in Weber’s first Honorverse anthology, More Than Honor (1998), and recounts events leading up to the meeting and bonding of Stephanie Harrington and Climbs Quickly. Part Two, “With Friends Like These…” is new material, and tells a story centred around the consequences of the first few human-treecat encounters. A Beautiful Friendship feels more like a pair of linked novellas than a unified whole. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The dangling subplot involving a conniving scientist and a chemical waste issue which was never properly resolved or explained, to my way of thinking, isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Weber is trying to write in two registers, here, appealing on the one hand to a YA audience while attempting to satisfy his core readership, and the seams show the odd, understandable bit of strain.
But what definitely isn’t a good thing was my creeping sense, as I was reading, that despite the new material, A Beautiful Friendship just isn’t a very compelling book. It’s fuzzy companion animal fantasy dressed up in SF clothes and given an interstellar dimension, and the tropes and characters of Part Two will be fundamentally familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Valdemar novel. With, perhaps, a little extra techno-historical infodumping added for flavour.
I’ll admit that I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Scott Westerfeld, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and a whole raft of weird and fantastic recent YA but where’s the sense of wonder here? Where’s the new planet bio-geekery and enthusiasm? When does Stephanie Harrington ever interact with anyone her own age who isn’t a complete and utter prat?
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that I’m not except relatively speaking a young adult, so I make no predictions about how its alleged target audience will react to A Beautiful Friendship. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope for its reception as an outstanding example of the genre: unlike, for example, John Scalzi’s space-operatic Zoe’s Tale, it lacks a compelling, believable adolescent voice.
A Beautiful Friendship is a perfectly readable book, and Weber completists will undoubtedly welcome it as an interesting minor addition to the Honor Harrington universe. It’s not Weber’s fault that I have high expectations: against the standards set by recent years’ excellent crop of SFF YA, A Beautiful Friendship is, sadly, merely ordinary.
Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College Dublin. She also reviews for Ideomancer.com.