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A Call to Duty is essentially a prequel novel setting up the world-state for author David Weber’s successful Honor Harrington series. Set some 300 years before the introduction of Honor, A Call to Duty shows us a very different image of the Manticoran civilisation. A great introduction to the world of the Honorverse showing the rise to power of that starfaring nation, A Call to Duty was an enjoyable read, and very much in keeping with Weber and Zahn’s ability to combine epic space-opera with very personal down-to-earth character flourishes that keep you involved in the narrative.

Growing up, Travis Uriah Long yearned for order and discipline in his life . . . the two things his neglectful mother couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. So when Travis enlisted in the Royal Manticoran Navy, he thought he’d finally found the structure he’d always wanted so desperately.

But life in the RMN isn’t exactly what he expected. Boot camp is rough and frustrating; his first ship assignment lax and disorderly; and with the Star Kingdom of Manticore still recovering from a devastating plague, the Navy is possibly on the edge of budgetary extinction.

The Star Kingdom is a minor nation among the worlds of the Diaspora, its closest neighbors weeks or months away, with little in the way of resources. With only modest interstellar trade, no foreign contacts to speak of, a plague-ravaged economy to rebuild, and no enemies looming at the hyper limit, there are factions in Parliament who want nothing more than to scrap the Navy and shift its resources and manpower elsewhere.

But those factions are mistaken. The universe is not a safe place.

Travis Long is about to find that out.

I always enjoy reading what amounts to origin stories for established fictions. Obviously we’re still well in the future since Manticore has a space fleet and whatnot, but considering we join Honor Harrington in a Manticore which is already one of the premier forces in the galaxy, back when they barely have a fleet to speak of, with the navy being slowly dismantled by parliament, it does make one wonder exactly how we’re getting there from here.

Travis Long seems like a great vehicle for doing that, though it takes a little while for that to become apparent. He starts off fairly un-likable; he’s a stickler for the rules in a really aggressively annoying way, and still seems only baseline competent, anyway. There’s a point where he’s observing people cheating in a class, and apparently as a result, he is only in the middle of the class in terms of his grades. This implies, I suppose, that a few of the really smart students are allowing a number of poor students to cheat? Because it seems to me that the kind of people who were prone to cheating are the ones who wouldn’t do so great on their own, and they could only rise to a certain level by combining their crappy efforts, not suddenly being the top of their class across the board. He is constantly reporting everybody for everything; he has a serious moral dilemma when he finds out that one of his fellow cadets, who is from a race of people with much faster metabolisms who need much more food, is stealing from the well-stocked kitchens to deal with the fact that he’s being underfed in a dangerous and unhealthy way.

But never fear, because Travis Long has that magical super-power which has propelled all of the great science-fiction captains and leaders since the genre existed: he thinks outside the box! He has that great power to be able to observe a situation and just decide that all they need to do is invert some sort of matrix or modify some sort of deflector, and they’re good to go. Imagine, if you dare, Wesley Crusher, only with the dedication to the rules that would make him report Captain Picard to the admirals for skirting around the Prime Directive. Like Wesley, he also provides that strange plot contrivance where you’ve got a ship crewed by people who are presumably among the best and brightest that a formal training program and academy can produce being scooped with the brilliant solution by some scrub on his first trip into space. It’s been so long since I’ve read the more ‘contemporary’ Honorverse titles that it’s difficult to remember if Long is remembered 300 years later for brilliance and lateral thinking, but I’m going to assume from the way he’s presented here that he does in fact grow up to be the Captain Picard of the early Manticoran Navy. Once he’s learned to relax a little, I think he’ll make a great character all around.

As a story on its own, A Call to Duty hits a lot of strong notes. It’s been years since the Manticoran people have had to deal with a larger threat than some bandits or pirates, and the navy is a slow drain on resources that a lot of politicians feel isn’t needed. There’s been a plague and everybody is desperate for manpower to rebuild all of the lost infrastructure. The political asides which occur around the fate of the Navy and the problems facing a monarch in a society where the House of Lords is really pushing for more and more authority were all excellently written and gave a sense of importance to what would otherwise be a bit of a mission-of-the-week plotline on Manticore-Trek. The Navy, which we know becomes very important from our previous experiences with the Honorverse, is facing dismantling, and its ability to deal with the crises which occur in this novel rather takes on the aspect of deciding its fate. We sort of know how it’s going to end because we know what the landscape looks like in a few hundred years, but it’s no less tense for that. Add in the very strong hard-sci-fi handling of the science and technology, which really fills their tech with guts you can see and understand that they’re working, and you’ve got an excellent episodic Space Opera setting without a lot of the hand-wavey technobabble you sort of resign yourself to seeing in other settings.

There’s no official announcement of the titles or release dates of future books in the Manticore Ascendant series, but it does appear like it will contain at least two more novels, and I’m definitely looking forward to checking them out!

Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Baen Books via NetGalley

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