I am sad to say that I fell for it again. Weber's name on a book lured me in. Usually, at least his short stories in these compilations are worth reading and he had two of the four in the book. Those are good odds!
Unfortunately, Weber is the real problem in this book. His work is the worst part of Beginnings and that's what makes me sad. Let's go through each of the stories and review them.
By The Book by Charles E. Gannon-
This short story tries to be a classic sci-fi mystery story. It harkens back to many of the short stories I enjoyed as a child with a classic tale where the protagonist is offered a mystery and has to solve it. Unfortunately, the ratio of actual action to exposition in this story is grossly weighted towards the exposition side. The mystery isn't solved by investigation. The reader will discover that all the clues needed to solve the interesting mystery are carefully hidden by never being revealed to the reader until the protagonist solves the crime and explains all of his off-camera discoveries to the culprit. The whole thing has three scenes that I can recall total where the characters aren't just vomiting exposition at each other.
What I'm saying is that it's not a fun story to read. You get through it is the best I can say.
A Call to Arms by Timothy Zahn-
I haven't read anything by Timothy Zahn in years, but my lack of notice hasn't affected his writng skills at all. He's still top-notch. This story is actually pretty good. If you enjoyed the space battles of early Honor Harrington stories, this story is even earlier (MUCH earlier), and it's interesting to see how well this story integrates with the progression of technology and tactics from the Harrington stories. It's a classic space battle story written from the perspective of a young officer still learning the ropes.
Zahn does a good job of keeping things interesting and moving. While this isn't one of the greatest stories ever written (or even the best in this book), it is engaging and entertaining. It's solid work and that's good enough for second place in this collection.
Beauty and the Beast by David Weber-
This story is about Honor Harrington's parents and how they met. In it you will discover two things (very light spoiler alert!)
1) Honor Harrington's parents are tree cats (metaphorically) and have unbeknownst special mental powers that they've never previously mentioned once in the series. This is particularly strange as they are both doctors who will go on to do a lot of research, and yet, they have never once apparently questioned these special mental powers, much less gone on to do a shred of research into clearly unique human abilities for the rest of their lives (judging by the rest of the Harrington stories.)
Sorry, this doesn't necessarily affect the quality of the story, but it really bugs me as it's not as if this weird discontinuity was created by some other writer. Weber himself comes up with this badly fitted retcon.
2) You also discover that Honor's father has a deep, dark secret about a very horrible combat event that happened in his life. It is referred to constantly in this story, and yet, it's never actually explicated what it is! You can put together a lot of the hints to vaguely see what it must have been, but astonishingly for Weber, it's never fully laid out for you to understand at all. I'm guessing this either will be or has been a separate short story, but that's never stopped Weber before from recapping the plot of another of his Harrington book, at length! That's been one of the serious flaws of the recent novels. You get the feeling Weber isn't so much writing them as copying and pasting.
I've gotten off track here. The above items are not necessarily problems with the story itself. The story has enough of its' own problems. I will say it does move along and has a lot of action in its' resolution. However, the repetition of item #1 above gets to be mind-numbing and downright annoying to the reader after a time. It's not just used as a plot device, it is most of the text of the story! There's a reiteration of the emotional connection between Honor's parents that borders on ridiculous. It's the "love at first sight" trope taken to a ridiculous new level and then repeated and repeated again. This is closely followed by references to item #2 and the "darkness" inside Alfred Harrington.
I really believe a good editor could have fixed this story and made it readable, but as it stands, it's repetitive and annoying. It's only slightly better than the first story.
The Best Laid Plans by David Weber-
This isn't a bad story, it's just not that great. More importantly, it was already written once by Weber in the short story A Beautiful Friendship. That was a more interesting story too. This is the story of how Honor Harrington and her tree cat, Nimitz, met. The story is substantially similar in form to how Honor's ancestor, Stephanie Harrington, was paired with her tree cat. Honor's version is just less epic and compelling.
I feel like A Beautiful Friendship may have originally meant to be the story of how Honor and Nimitz met, and Weber decided it was to over the top. He couldn't have EVERY event in Honor's life be that massive and ground-breaking. So, he changed that story to her ancestor, but when it came time to write the story of Honor and Nimitz, he didn't have any other ideas and so did a much watered down version of the earlier story.
Maybe I'm being too harsh (very likely). Maybe Weber wanted Honor's story to echo Stephanie's in a homage. That's fine, but my problem is that there's nothing new here. Nothing really interesting. I didn't find this story to be even slightly compelling. I am sure I will have no reason to ever want to reread it. It wasn't painful (like Beauty and the Beast, above was), it's just that this story has no reason for me to ever want to spend time on it again. I would rate it as, "Eh."
Obligated Service by Joelle Presby
My understanding is that Presby is a yeoman writer and this is one of her first stories published. She deserves it as she pulls off the most interesting and compelling story of this entire collection (which is impressive when you are sharing pages with Zahn and Weber!)
Obligated Service is a bit rough in places and I think an editor could have helped polish the language a bit. There are a few passages where the meaning is unclear, but you figure it out. However, the story as a whole is excellent. There are real characters, with real problems, and you actually care about them! Things happen and the exposition is kept to a minimum.
This is a really excellent story and the one redeeming gem in this collection. The story does a good job of showing the hardships that characters can plow through and the main character is a wonderful counterpoint to the perfection of Honor Harrington.
This story doesn't have any big action sequences, but the story is kept moving and proves you don't have to have people shooting at each other to have a compelling navy story. I also appreciate having a protagonist in this universe who focuses on maintenance and damage control. While I'm not sure you could make a novel out of it, it works quite well with everything else for this short story.
I can't wait to see what Joelle Presby writes next!
In summary, I can't possibly suggest buying this book. There's one great story, one good story, one very average story, and two stories that I wouldn't waste my time on. It's just not good odds.