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Return to Mesa: follows on from "Torch of Freedom" in the Honor Harrington Universe
on 21 April 2014
This story is the nineteenth full length novel in the "Honorverse" group of novels set some 2,000 years in the future. It is the third novel, after "Crown of Slaves (Honorverse)" and "Torch of Freedom" in a sub-series about how two super-spies from star nations which were originally at war fought to help free "genetic slaves" and the "seccie" descendents of slaves from the tyranny of the government of the planet Mesa and its' corrupt companies.
A particular enemy is a company called "Manpower" who are under the control of an organisation known to its inner core as the "Mesan Alignment." Everyone assumes that Manpower is simply a rich and corrupt company of genetic slavers out for a profit by genetically engineering people as perfectly tailored slaves and then selling them. Unfortunately for the galaxy they are much, much more than that ...
In the previous books in this sub-series the two unlikely allies, Manticoran super-spy Anton Zilwicki and the Havenite super-spy Victor Cachat went undercover on Mesa and found out what the Mesan Alignment is really up to. They then returned to their home nations and explained what they had found.
In this book Anton, Victor and some of their friends return to Mesa, hoping to get some more information, to find that the planet to which they have returned is on the brink of civil war in which the "seccies," nominally free but effectively second class citizens descended from slaves, are about to be made scapegoats and victims for the actions of the Mesan Alignment ...
If you have not read any of the "Honorverse" books and are interested in doing so, do not start with this one: I would recommend starting with the first book in the main Honor Harrington sequence which is "On Basilisk Station (Honorverse)."
The first eleven Honorverse novels, despite being Space Opera stories set in the far future, had very strong parallels with the story of Nelson's navy up to 1805. The central character of most of these books, Honor Harrington, is a bit like a female mix of Horatio Nelson and Horatio Hornblower. Assumed technology in the first group of stories imposes constraints on space navy officers quite similar to those which the technology of fighting sail imposed on wet navy officers two hundred years ago.
Similarly, the galactic situation in the novels up to the battle of Manticore at the end of "At All Costs (Honorverse)" (which corresponds to Trafalgar) had marked similarities to the strategic and political situation in Europe at the time of the French revolutionary wars.
However, having finished the interesting parts of the battles at sea between the Royal Navy and the French Navy, the story is turning into something completely different. In "Torch of Freedom" and "Storm from the Shadows (Honorverse)" (SFTS) the reader learned that the genetic slaver company called "Manpower" is merely a front for something far more powerful and dangerous, known to its inner circle as "The Mesan Alignment" who are planning to remake the galaxy in pursuit of their idea of a genetically purified paradise - and don't care how many hundreds of billions of human beings and other sentient life-forms will die in the process.
Albrecht Detweiler, head of the Mesan Alignment and the new primary "baddie" introduced in "Torch of Freedom" is an interesting and complex person for the reader to love to hate, combining as he does some of the characteristics of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (without the cat), Dr Soong from Star Trek Enterprise (without the scruples), and the Emperor of Cetaganda from the Miles Vorkosigan Universe (without the humour.)
Interestingly, "Cauldron of Ghosts" reveals just how much more dangerous the Mesans are than the good guys originally assumed "Manpower" to be, when in this book for the first time one of their operatives proves that there are people who are willing to die for the Mesan cause.
The Galaxy's original view of Manpower, perfectly articulated by Honor Harrington's uncle Jacques at the end of the novella "Beauty and the Beast" in the collection "Beginnings: Worlds of Honor Book 6 (Honor Harrington), was that they were a bunch of crooks who were just in it for money, and although some of their people might be willing to risk death in a battle they expected to win, nobody on Mesa's side would willingly give their life for it. Up to this book, people who have done suicidal things at Mesa's behest have been unwilling victims under the contol of tailored "assassination nanotech" which can be used to make them carry out very simple but lethal commands such as grab a gun and start shooting people, hit the panic button that fires all a fleet's missiles, crash an aircar, or shoot themselves in the head.
But one of the Mesan security enforcers in this book, a member of an elite security force nicknamed the "Gauls," demonstrates that as with the SS or Al Queda fighters, the Mesan Alighnment's vision may appear sick to the rest of humanity but they do have an ideology which some of their people are willing to die for.
The "Gaul" concerned cannot possibly have been under the control of "assassination nanotech" because his actions are too complex and are clearly a deliberate and carefully executed response to a situation which his superiors may have foreseen in general terms but could not possibly have predicted in sufficient detail to programme him with it. He carries out his orders even though his own death is an inevitable consequence. (Can't give more details without a spoiler.)
This novel is the first time we have seen the Gauls, and I will be intersted to see if there is more detail about them in future books.
LIST OF HONORVERSE BOOKS
As hinted at above, the Honor Harrington series (sometimes nicknamed the "Honorverse") has developed two spin-off storylines. Stories set in this Universe fall into three series set 2,000 years from now amd two prequel series set 1,500 years from now, although they link together in a reasonably consistent manner.
There is the main sequence, currently of 13 novels, which follow the career of Honor Harrington herself. This main sequence is:
1) On Basilisk Station
2) Honor of the Queen (Honorverse)
3) The Short Victorious War (Honor Harrington)
4) Field of Dishonour
5) Flag in Exile
6) Honor among Enemies
7) In Enemy Hands
8) Echoes of Honor
9) Ashes of Victory
10) War of Honor
11) At All Costs
12) Mission Of Honor, which is set after "Torch of Freedom" and pulls all three perspectives back together again
13) A Rising Thunder
There are currently six collections in the "Worlds of Honor" series of short stories by Weber and co-authors set in the same universe, and featuring a range of characters, some from the main series of books, others new.
Some of these are espionage stories and the "Crown of Slaves" sub-series co-written with Eric Flint, in which this book is the third volume, brings together several of the most prominent spies from the novels and short stories. As explained above this series comprises "Crown of Slaves," "Torch of Freedom" and "Cauldron of Ghosts."
And then there the "Shadow" series, dealing mostly with events in the Talbott Cluster and the relationship between Manticore and the Solarian Republic based on Old Earth. This sequence starts with "The Shadow of Saganami" and follows on with "Storm from the Shadows" and most recently "Shadow of Freedom".
There are two series set five hundred years before. The "Star Kingdom" series, currently a trilogy consisting of "A beautiful friendship," "Fire Season" and "Treecat Wars," tells the story of how Honor's ancestor Stephanie Harrington became the first human to form a telempathic "adoption" bond with a Sphinx treecat. Weber is also about to bring out the first of a new "Manticore Ascendant" trilogy about the early days of the Royal Manticoran Navy, set in the same century (it starts 11 years after the prologue of "A Beautiful Friendship"). This first book, which is co-authored by Timothy Zahn, will be called "A Call to Duty" and is due for publication on 7th October 2014.
Cauldron of Ghosts is set at almost exactly the same time as "A Rising Thunder" and "Shadow of Freedom." But in my opinion this book is easier to follow if you have read those books first.
At one point early in this book Admiral Honor Harrington excuses herself for leaving a meeting to make sure her fleet is ready to deal with an anticipated enemy attack which those who have read "A Rising Thunder" will recognise as having taken place in that book. The Mesan Alignment are putting into practice throughout "Cauldron of Ghosts" a response to the revelations made by Anton Zilwicki and Victor Chachat which was agreed by Albrecht Detweiler and his son in a conversation which appears in both "A Rising Thunder" and "Shadow of Freedom." And - apologies if this sounds Delphic, I am trying to avoid a spoiler - the final pages of this book are closely linked to the final pages of "Shadow of Freedom" in a manner which in my opinion makes the ending of this book easier to follow if you have read that book first.
I found "Cauldron of Ghosts" to be interesting and entertaining and recommend this book.