A Rising Thunder is the latest installment in David Weber’s Honorverse stories, and the thirteenth in the main sequence. Fans of the series will welcome an increase in pace from 2010’s sprawling Mission of Honor. For less-committed readers like me, however, the continuing essential lack of focus fails to charm.
There are times when it seems Weber has traded his ability to tell a good rollicking story (examples: For the Honor of the Queen, Flag in Exile, Path of the Fury, Oath of Swords) for an obstinate determination to tell all the story across his grand interstellar canvas — yes, all of it, giving point of view to every mover and shaker and indeed candlestick maker with an axe to grind, point to make, or grand scheme to exposit. I’m not sure why Weber thinks this is best way to proceed: for me, none of his books since Ashes of Victory have had any real heart. The earlier volumes, whatever their flaws, possessed an enthusiasm and vibrancy that recent installments have shown only in flashes.
So, A Rising Thunder. The state of play: former enemies Manticore and Haven have reached a truce and are negotiating an alliance against the Solarian League. Diplomatic tensions with the League are moving towards outright war. Trade embargoes and denial of passage are taking place left, right and centre. The Mesans are manoeuvring the latest stage of their secretive plot to control all of known space by setting the major players at war. Permanent war! Oh, and there’s a Solarian fleet en route to the Manticore system in a misguided attempt by the Solarian grey eminences to rapidly establish their dominance.
Weber is at his best when writing battle sequences, at his worst when bringing wonks and political leaders on stage to discuss the status quo and all possible ramifications of events presently in motion. These discursive sections provide all the drag of a sea-anchor on narrative tension. I make an exception for Elizabeth Winton and Eloise Pritchart, both of whom appear to possess actual personalities — indeed, the sections from Winton’s point of view are some of the novel’s highlights — but it’s impossible to keep track of the spiralling profusion of names and opinions without a scorecard. And, disappointingly, the Mesan masterminds and the Solarian leadership, when they get a look-in, continue to suffer a sad surfeit of blandness.
The profusion of names is a problem also, albeit a lesser one, in the battle sequences. Here my irritation arose from the fact that no sooner had I become accustomed to one set of ship commanders and crews than they were replaced with another. And so on. Und so weiter. Not because they’d died, but because we’d skipped on willy-nilly to the next theatre of war and a new set of characters and another set of problems. There is little unity here, although there’s more tension and movement than in Mission of Honor. One cannot escape the feeling that David Weber is no longer in control of his material, and has not been for a while: it, rather, is in control of him.
If I’m cranky, it’s because I care. There are flashes, here, of the reasons I keep reading this series even after the bloom’s gone off the rose, in the scenes with Elizabeth Winton, in the battle scenes, in the handful of scenes with Honor herself: when the spirit moves him, Weber can write solid character and solid action and a relatively entertaining flow of techsposition. I could wish the spirit had moved him more in A Rising Thunder.
Fans, as I said, will be happy. Less-committed souls, on the other hand, are likely to walk away with a creeping sense of dissatisfaction. Read it. Enjoy it. But don’t expect too much of it.
Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin.