Engaging Explosions: A Call To Duty by Timothy Zahn and David Weber

A Call To Duty is the latest novel in the universe of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels. In some respects one could just as easily refer to it as the earliest: it’s set shortly after the founding of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, before the discovery of the Manticore Junction wormhole, at a period where its fledgling navy’s very existence is under threat from political manoeuvring and budget squabbles.

Our protagonist is Travis Uriah Long, who enlists in the Royal Manticorean Navy at the age of seventeen in search of structure. Travis believes in following the rules, but also has a strong sense of loyalty and an ability to think outside the box when the situation warrants. His rule-following tendencies bring him trouble when he runs up against slackness up the chain of command in his specialty training school after bootcamp; his ability to think outside the box brings him to the attention of his officers during a crisis—even if the captain never puts the idea into practice, and even denies him credit for it.

But when the tactical officer who championed his idea is reassigned to a ship whose duties will take her out of the Manticore system, on what’s ostensibly a “show-the-flag” mission to where the Republic of Haven is selling off warships (but is also designed to let the Manticoreans check out whether or not they might ever be able to compete with the Havenites in shipbuilding, and so head off the domestic politicos who claim a navy is a complete waste of resources), she arranges for him to be assigned to her vessel. Travis Long is about to get an opportunity to show his mettle, because the Havenite ship sale hasn’t just attracted interested buyers: it’s attracted interested pirates, too.

Meanwhile, Travis’s elder half-brother Gavin is a junior peer in the House of Lords who’s attached himself to the cut-the-navy interest. We see the political manoeuvring from his perspective, and the perspective of naval officer Edward Winton, heir to the Manticorean crown, while we see naval matters from Travis’ perspective and the perspective of officers and enlisted around him.

It’s always a tricky matter, discussing a work of collaboration when it feels very strongly like the product of a single author: Zahn has written shorter pieces in Weber’s Manticore continuum before, but this is the first time his name has been attached to a novel—and that novel feels a lot more like a “Zahn novel” than a Weber production. For one thing, it’s shorn of the endless talking heads and interminable info-dumping that has characterised so much of Weber’s recent work; for another, the pacing, the characterisation, the sense that the author is having fun in telling this story reminds me a lot of Zahn’s Angelmass or his Conqueror trilogy.

(It’s always struck me that Zahn is at his best form when playing in someone else’s sandbox, as though not having to do the heaviest work of worldbuilding frees him to concentrate on a rollicking good story with compelling characters. Or at least I’ve always felt his Star Wars novels in general tell tighter, more compelling stories than most of his original work. The same is true here.)

The word that comes to mind when thinking about A Call To Duty, in fact, is fun. Apart from Travis and one or two others, the characters, particularly the villains, remain broadly sketched—a corrupt politician who believes (wrongly) that the universe is a warm and fuzzy place makes an appearance, in typical Weberian fashion; pirates out to make a profit in ruthless piratical fashion—but they mostly have sufficient personality to come across as individuals. The pacing’s well-handled, even where the structure of the story would make it easy for the tension to lag. The narrative sets up potential for a continuing arc—I believe the authors are under contract for two sequels—while remaining relatively self-contained.

This is an entertaining space opera in the military mode. It doesn’t demand a great deal of its reader, but sometimes that’s exactly what you want. Things explode in an engaging fashion! It is easy to tell who the narrative expects you to root for! And it’s a solid stand-alone story… right up until its ominous, cliff-hanging final chapter.

I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Call to Duty is available now from Baen.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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