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Monday, July 6, 2009

"By Heresies Distressed" by David Weber (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

David Weber at Wikipedia
Official David Weber Website
Order “By Heresies DistressedHERE(US) and HERE(UK and Overseas)

INTRODUCTION: Multiple New York Times bestselling author David Weber, lovingly known by the many fans congregating on his forums at Baen's Bar as MWW—“Mad Wizard Weber"—does not need an introduction. I have been a big-time fan of Mr. Weber's work since the early 90's and I have read and re-read multiple times all of his novels. While "Honor Harrington" remains his most beloved series and my number one ongoing sff series for that matter, the Safehold series caught the imagination of the readers and these two seem to be the main focus of his work for now.

I plan to do a Honorverse overview before the publication of the next novel Torch of Freedom (co-written with Eric Flint who saved Honor from death in the Battle of Manticore by making the combo Victor Cachat/Anton Zilwicky and their branch of the story so compelling that long-term series plans changed).

What makes David Weber such a great story-teller that arc's of his Tor novels sell for $$$ on eBay while his main publisher Baen has essentially pioneered selling electronic copies of arc's starting with the superb "At All Costs" to satisfy this insatiable demand?

I will use this review to talk a bit about the above, leaving a more detailed discussion for the Honorverse essay. I reviewed the second Safehold novel "By Schism Rent Asunder" HERE and I will use (an
updated) series overview from there. The three Safehold novels to date will be denoted by their initials OAR, BSRA and BHD in most of what follows.

OVERVIEW: Imagine a world where everyone KNOWS from childhood that about 900 years ago God and His Archangels created humanity. After all, there are the testimonies of the eight million Adams and Eves simultaneously created in Year Zero. There are also continual reminders of God's presence as manifested in various temples that have continuous heavenly lighting and climate conditioning as well as being untouched by the passage of time and the ravages of weather.

Then there is the all powerful Church of God Awaiting, the Holy Writ and the Proscriptions that limit technology to roughly our age of Sail. Welcome to Safehold, the last known refuge of the once mighty Human Federation exterminated by the powerful aliens called the GBABA.

It was not supposed to be like this though. Safehold was planned to stay at a pre-electric level for only a while to make sure no emissions would betray its presence to the GBABA, and the original eight million colonists volunteered to be “reborn” with false memories to avoid the temptations of premature high-tech. But the real human history was to be preserved. It was assumed that in time the descendants of the colonists would start working to reclaim humanity's place among the stars. This time though, prepared for the GBABA.

But Langhorne, the leader of the expedition establishing the colony, decided that being almost a god is much better, so he marginalized the sane people among those that prepared Safehold for human occupation prior to waking up the colonists, and went on with his mad schemes for keeping the planet at a pre-electric level forever with nobody in the future finding out its real origins.

The most courageous of the dissenting voices, Pei Shan Wei, tried to stop this madness, but was outvoted on the ruling Council, so she tried to create an Alexandria enclave dedicated to preserving knowledge. Once Langhorne did not need Shan Wei's terraforming expertise anymore, he brought Rakurai—orbital fire—on Alexandria and obliterated it.

The still barren land is now known as Armageddon Reef and has an evil reputation. Once Alexandria was destroyed, Shan Wei's husband, Commodore Pei of the Federation's navy and nominal military leader who pretended to be estranged from his wife for sixty years to keep his place in the ruling council, dropped by Langhorne and his closest associates with a pocket vest nuke.

Since these events occurred roughly 900 years ago, Shan Wei is the fallen archangel in the Safeholdian mythology, the ‘Devil’ if you want, while Langhorne is the most holy of the archangels and his order in the Church is the most prestigious.

Merlin, an android/PICA having the memories, and some would say the soul of Nimue—an officer in the Federation's navy and protégée of the commodore, who sacrificed herself covering the convoy that established Safehold—wakes up in the year 890 of Safehold. After she is briefed by a recording of the commodore, she/it takes a male identity and body necessary in this patriarchal society and goes to the island continent of Charis to put “his” sword and knowledge at the disposal of King Haarahld, and initiate the long process of awakening Safehold. The Safeholdian renewal is ready to start and “Off Armageddon Reef” is the first installment of the saga, followed by “By Schism Rent Asunder” and now continuing strong with "By Heresies Distressed" which completes the arc started in BSRA and ends at a natural lull in the action with promises of great stuff to come.

As usual there are lots of POV's with the most notable being Merlin, Cayleb and Sharleyan and an assortment of Charisians in the extended Imperial sense from the good guys, with Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn finally coming into his own as an opponent to fear, while the co-leader of the bad guys, Chancellor Trynair has some great stuff too, their Charis agents are up to dastardly deeds and Prince Hector shows why he was presumed to be a powerful opponent.

For Weber aficionados, the land war in Corisande and some doings in Charis remind one of the "Heirs of Empire" action in both its main locations, while Merlin gets to deliver the best lines and even decapitates one of the villains personally, though Clyntahn's "one will find something to keep us a busy" - over the winter when military action stops - is as chilling as it goes...

BSRA and BHD form together a long volume with a clear beginning, clear stopping point and following one main theme: the creation and regional ascendancy of the Empire of Charis as the nucleus of rebuilding technological civilizations, rediscovering humanity's heritage and preparing to take on the GBABA.

So we have the first characteristic of David Weber's work - open ended series that build volume upon volume, but bring enough closure in each installment or group of installments to keep the reader happy.

Safehold so far has the introductory volume OAR which is self contained to a large extent and ends in one of the most emotional moments of Weber's work with the heroic death of King Haarahld and its aftermath and then follows with this combo starting with the Martin Luther-like public split with Zion, and dealing with the expansion of Charis into an Empire as fast as possible until the Group of Four brings to bear the immense Church resources to crush them.

Emotional scenes that will touch the reader deeply: I mentioned the ending of
OAR, and then in BSRA we have the first martyr of the Charis reformation and his finding God and faith for real despite being a nominal servant of the Church for his whole life. In BHD, Merlin provides some of the most memorable emotional content.

Twists and turns:
OAR provides unexpected villains and hints of the future, BSRA has maybe the most stunning of all twists in Weber's work that happens in a monastery of all places and left me just stunned as it did Merlin for that matter while here we get Clyntahn's and Trynair to provide some such, though the good guys get some unexpected help too.

Larger than life, memorable and well drawn lead characters. While in
OAR King Haarahld was the towering figure outside of Merlin of course - and one reason his death resonated so powerfully - in BSRA unexpected great characters emerged in Arcbishop Maikel, (former) Archbishop Dynnys, Queen and later Empress Sharleyan and Prince Narhmann, while here the bad guys finally come into their own with Clyntahn and Trynair emerging as "real people" rather than stereotypes; Cayleb continues his growth as Emperor and warlord and even surprises Merlin (and us since Merlin as a technological Earth representative is as close to our sensibilities as it gets) several times...

Great battles both naval and land showing David Weber's training as military historian. In this respect BHD will not disappoint featuring the expected land campaign in Corisande to complement the great naval battles of OAR and BSRA. There is some naval action too and of course lots of action scenes outside of war proper.

Epic cast with numerous characters that even in one or two pages show some distinctive personality so they could (and sometimes would) be developed further, reappearing later and even morphing into main leads. Too numerous to count, some of my favorites are the Wylsynn's (brothers and son/nephew), Ahnzhelyk and Adorai and some unexpected new characters from Corisande.

And of course the story-telling which flows naturally despite the occasional digressions and the wealth of detail. While some of the technical aspects in Honorverse - though appreciated and endlessly debated by fans with the occasional authorial clarification on the Bar - can be too intricate for my taste, in this series I found a good balance in the descriptions of 17th century like technology and the improvements brought by Merlin and keeping (so far) within the letter if not the spirit of the Proscriptions.

I hope that the points above help explaining why I love Mr. Weber's work so much and of course BHD is highly, highly recommended, I read it 3-4 times already as well as re-reading OAR and BSRA with it, though I would suggest to at least read BSRA before since this one is a second half of a volume in a definite way.


Elena said...

This was a perfectly timed review/summary. I'm waiting for the third book to come out in a couple of days, and I definitely have to say thanks for recapsulating the first two books as it's been a while since I've read them.

You've also made the final few days wait even more difficult by making the book that much more enticing.

Roland Dobbins said...

It would've been nice if you'd told us the names of all the books before you elected to refer to them merely by initials, heh.


Liviu said...

Actually before any other mention of the books there is this paragraph in the Overview :)

"The Safeholdian renewal is ready to start and “Off Armageddon Reef” is the first installment of the saga, followed by “By Schism Rent Asunder” and now continuing strong with "By Heresies Distressed" which completes the arc started in BSRA and ends at a natural lull in the action with promises of great stuff to come."

But I agree that I got into this habit of initializing David Weber's books from the Bar where I've been contributing since the 90's, so I apologize for that and next time I will make a note on top with the abbreviations used.

While BHD is especially a great re-read book, it is a second half of a huge volume in a definite way so I strongly recommend reading BSRA first since the two form one story. While BSRA segues from OAR, thematically they are slightly different so you can start from there if must.

I am very, very curious where the series goes next, and how many volumes of Caleb and co we get before moving to their descendants and GBABA since Mr. Weber said that he got fond of the current crew so the original 4-book before moving on plan changed and the series is contracted now for 7-8 books I think at least...

Rachel Heston Davis said...

This sounds like a wonderful book series. I am always in awe of authors who create such deep and intricate plots, and I aspire to do half as good a job as they do. Thanks for a very thorough review.

RH Davis

Wench said...

The books are, so far, awesome. That said - David Webber should never, ever, ever be allowed to use the word "whimsical" again. Ever.

bascule said...

I'm not sure why but Amazon UK keep screwing up the pricing of these books. BHD is suffering the same fate as BSRA in that they have not translated the Dollar price into pounds, they have copied it across instead so right now it is £27.95. I just can't order it at that price. I know if the price drops in 30 days they refund you but last time with BSRA it took a couple of months to get it right.

I need to get it from Amazon as I'm totally broke but have £70 odd in gift vouchers.

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