Review: 'A Beautiful Friendship', by David Weber
The first entry in a new teen series and the origin saga for the incredibly popular, multiple New York Times and USA Today bestselling Honor Harrington adult science fiction adventures. Young Stephanie Harrington is none other than the founder of a pioneering family dynasty that is destined to lead the fight for humanity's freedom in a dangerous galaxy. [publisher’s blurb]
Yes, but this story isn’t entirely new. In January 1998, Baen Books published More Than Honor (review; YARF! #58), an anthology of three original novellas by different authors set in Weber’s “Honor Harrington” universe.
The lead novella was Weber’s own “A Beautiful Friendship” (pages 3-132), the beginning of this same story. It appears with minor expansions, retitled as “Unexpected Meetings”, as chapters 1 through 12 (pp. 3-129) of this novel.
The second part, “With Friends Like These…” (chs. 13-29; pp. 133-352), is an original sequel. This rewritten novel version is the first in Baen’s new Star Kingdom series of Young Adult s-f books.
Weber’s first Honor Harrington novel was On Basilisk Station, published in April 1993, featuring the charismatic military spaceship captain (modeled on C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, who was modeled on the historical British Admiral Horatio Nelson) and her inseparable companion, the six-legged empathic treecat, Nimitz.
Since then there have been a dozen sequels by Weber, and several “in the worlds of Honor” collections by Weber and his friends, to expand the series. The “Honorverse” has become one of the most popular series of military science fiction. Unfortunately from a Furry aspect, Nimitz and his fellow intelligent treecats from the planet Sphinx are usually such minor background characters that only the most rabid Furry chauvinists could call these Furry books. But in A Beautiful Friendship, the treecats come into their own.
The tale is set about 350 years before the Honorverse series, when the planet Sphinx in the Manticore system is just being settled by humans. They haven’t yet discovered the native treecats. The small arboreal intelligent animals, who are telepathic among themselves and can read human emotions, have deliberately remained hidden. Eleven-year-old Stephanie Harrington, Honor’s ancestor, becomes the first human to meet a treecat, Climbs Quickly. The two immediately become Best Friends, and have to figure out how to introduce their peoples to each other in a way that will avoid a conflict, or the humans treating the treecats as dumb animals to be exploited.
A Beautiful Friendship is a slickly written but formulaic Young Adult story. It features an attractive tomboyish eleven-year-old heroine who has no friends because she is smarter than any of her classmates, and gets simplistic schoolwork that bores her. Stephanie’s intelligent scientist parents love her, but they understandably refuse to let her go out alone into the largely unexplored, dangerous countryside where all wildlife is “known” to be deadly. Alone, she solves a minor scientific mystery that leads her to discover a new, furry alien race that nobody suspects.
Climbs Quickly is Stephanie's exact counterpart; a treecat intellectual young adult who is ordered by his tribal leaders to remain hidden from humans, despite his belief that they could be mutual friends. When Stephanie and Climbs Quickly accidentally meet, a "beautiful friendship" is immediately formed on a subconscious emotional level. The two must overcome dangerous bigotry and paranoia among their peoples to bring about the human-treecat bonding that will become natural by Honor Harrington’s time. For Honor Harrington fans, the novel contains a lot of information about the early human political history of the Kingdom of Manticore and of Sphinx.
The story focuses on Stephanie and Climbs Quickly in alternating chapters or extensive scenes. Climbs Quickly’s scenes are what make this a Furry novel. Others of Sphinx’s ferocious wildlife are mentioned briefly – the hexapumas, the peak bears, the burrow runners – but the six-legged treecats (Climbs Quickly, his sister Sings Truly, and others in his Bright Water Clan of over two hundred) are described in detail, along with their reactions to humans.
[Climbs Quickly] hated crossing between trees now that the cold days were passing into those of mud. Not that he was particularly fond of snow, either, he admitted with a bleek of laughter, but at least it melted out of his fur—eventually—instead of forming gluey clots that dried hard as rock. Still, there were compensations to warming weather, and he sniffed appreciatively at the breeze that rustled the furled buds just beginning to fringe the all-but-bare branches. Under most circumstances, he would have climbed all the way to the top to luxuriate in the wind fingers ruffling his coat, but he had other things on his mind today.
He finished grooming himself, then rose on his rear legs in the angle of the cross-branch and trunk to scan his surroundings with sharp green eyes. (page 14)
He slowed as he reached the final cross-branch, then stopped. He sat for long, still moments, cream and gray coat blending into invisibility against trunks and branches veiled in a fine spray of tight green buds, motionless but for a single true-hand which groomed his whiskers reflexively. He listened carefully, with ears and thoughts alike, and those ears pricked as he tasted the faint mind-glow that indicated the presence of two-legs. It wasn’t the clear, bright communication it would have been from one of People, for the two-legs appeared to be mind-blind, yet there was something . . . nice about it. Which was odd, for whatever else they were, the two-legs were very unlike the People. That much had been obvious from the very beginning. (page 15)
Climbs Quickly pulled free of the two-leg’s mind-glow. It was hard—possibly the hardest thing he’d ever done—yet he had his duty. And so he made himself step back from that wonderful, welcoming furnace. Or, rather, he stepped away from it, for it was too strong, too intense, actually to disconnect from. He could turn his eyes away from the fire, but he could not pretend it did not blaze.
He shook himself, and then he launched outward into the rain and darkness. He was slow and clumsy with the net of cluster stalk on his back, but he knew as surely as he’d ever known anything in his life that this young two-leg meant him no harm. The secret of the People’s existence was already revealed, and haste would change nothing, so he sat upright in the rain for a moment, gazing up at the two-leg, who finally lowered the strange thing it had held before its face to look down at him with its own eyes. He met those odd, brown, round-pupilled eyes for a moment, then flipped his ears, turned, and scampered off. (page 55)
In “Unexpected Meetings”, Stephanie and Climbs Quickly meet and form their unbreakable emotional bond, they save each other’s lives, and the treecats are persuaded to reveal themselves to the humans. In “With Friends Like These…”, set two years later, the human authorities of Sphinx are in disagreement over how intelligent/sentient the treecats are. Stephanie and Climbs Quickly (known as Lionheart among humans) want to protect them, but become involved in a clandestine scheme to capture treecats and smuggle them offplanet. The treecats are fully satisfactory as Furry aliens.
Fans of the treecats should also read Baen Books’ Worlds of Honor (February 1999; $7.99), an anthology of five original novellas – two by Weber and three by other authors – of about ninety pages each. Treecats play important roles in four of them; and one, The Stray by Linda Evans, features Dr. Scott MacDallan and “his” treecat Fisher who are major characters in “With Friends Like These…”.