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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“By Schism Rent Asunder” by David Weber

Order “By Schism Rent AsunderHERE

Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu:

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. Even in the short time between receiving the ARC of “By Schism Rent Asunder” and writing this review, I've read the novel three times and it will likely be my favorite book of the year. Since “By Schism Rent Asunder” is volume two of the Safehold saga—after last year's bestseller, “Off Armageddon Reef”—there will be inevitable spoilers including the ending, so reader beware.

SETTING: 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 Safehold 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”.

FORMAT/INFO:By Schism Rent Asunder” stands at 494 pages of text and includes a large list of characters, a glossary and a note on Safeholdian timekeeping. The book is divided into several large chapters named by the months of the Safeholdian calendar in which the action takes place—there are ten such months, so no December and January—with multiple numbered subchapters. The narration is third-person present-tense with multiple POV's, most notably King Cayleb, Merlin, the group of four vicars that lead the Church, officers, scientists and magnates of Charis, enemy princes and nobles, and quite a few others. The naming conventions take a while to get used to due to Weber's skilled use of language drift across the centuries, but then it becomes fun to transliterate them and nobody will have any problem with names like the main villain Grand Inquisitor Zhaspahr Clyntahn; the leader of the Charisian church Archbishop Maikel Staynair; or its former official leader and current Inquisition “guest”, ex-Archbishop Erayk Dynnys, just to give a taste. The ending happens at a reasonable stopping point and I have to say that the next book in the series, “By Heresies Distressed”, is already my most anticipated book of 2009.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: King Haarahld has died heroically in the battle at Darcos Sound, his sacrifice enabling the returning Prince Cayleb's galleons to utterly destroy the last large maritime force sent against Charis by the Group of 4 under the guise of their secular identity as Knights of the Temple Lands. Charis rules the seas of Safehold, and being an island continent, it is safe for the time being. But the Church controls the rest of Safehold, so more than 90% of its population and resources, though the control of the Church may be not as secure as it believes since quite a few Safeholdian leaders follow the church only as long as the Inquisition can reach them, although there are a lot of true believers. Former corrupt Archbishop, Charis Erayk Dynnys, is under arrest by the Inquisition in Zion, the Church capital, while the newly minted Archbishop Maikel boldly declares the secession of the Charisian Church and publicly indicts the Group of 4, name by name, for conspiring to destroy Charis, stealing Church funds for its purposes, and various other misdeeds. After this stunning opening to the book, the events precipitate and since a large part of the pleasure of reading David Weber is for the many surprises and plot twists, I will avoid any more spoilers.

Badly wounded by the complete destruction of its hired fleets and by the stunning public letter from Maikel, the Group of 4 is off balance and needs to do things to keep being overthrown by their opponents in the Council of Vicars. Things like public executions, denunciations of Charisian heresy, preparations for more fleets, and maybe even a “continental blockade”—the ultimate act of declaring Holy War. Since the original attack on Charis was done under the aegis of the Knights of the Temple Lands, not of the Church itself—though nobody is fooled by this pretension—involving the Church officially will raise the stakes dramatically precluding any possibility of peaceful resolution to the conflict. So what could Maikel have thought to send that inflammatory public letter that infinitely raised the probability of the above events happening sooner rather than later? Well, the answer comes on page 207 and it will shock you. Of the Group of 4 members, the Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn, though technically subordinate to the Chancellor Trynair, is assuming more and more power and his decisions start to prevail. The treasurer Rhobair though, is starting to rediscover God and the meaning of Faith, and has corresponding doubts about any deep escalation of the conflict. But as the saying goes, once you grab a tiger's tail, you gotta ride it... And ironically, Rhobair's newly found faith gives unexpected legitimacy to the Group of 4 within the rest of the Church leadership. While everyone knows and fears Clyntahn for his fanatical and corrupt ways, many high churchmen—who otherwise would get rid of Clyntahn the moment they could—start respecting Rhobair more and more.

On the Charisian side, newly crowned King Cayleb is looking for allies. Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm, being a natural partner of Charis, is returned all her captured galleys and people by Cayleb, who later sends her his First Minister on a secret mission that may change the shape of the conflict. Cayleb also plans to deal with his immediate enemies, Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald and Prince Hector of Corisande, since with all these neighboring island continents being brought in alliance or to heel, nothing can threaten Charis directly.

Merlin is busy protecting the King, the Archbishop, and spreading scientific & technical knowledge while keeping for now within the Proscriptions bounds—and of course keeping Cayleb informed of anything happening in the world through his tech surveillance devices. Unfortunately those devices cannot penetrate the Temple at Zion, so the direct decisions of the Group of 4 are as much a mystery to him as anyone.

Archbishop Maikel has some unexpected surprises for us. Most magnates, nobility, officers and common people of Charis are willing to follow Cayleb wherever he leads, even to “Hell and Damnation”, at least in the official Church's eyes, but there is some opposition, and “In the Name of the True Church” becomes a slogan for assassination attempts, arson and mayhem. Despite some requests from his councilors for a severe crackdown, Cayleb is willing to use surveillance and prosecution of actual crimes for now, rather than start handing treason indictments left and right. Will this be enough?

Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm has a hard decision to make. She is already marked as untrustworthy by the Group of 4 for her previous links with Charis, tardiness in sending her galleys to war against Haarahld, and now having the surviving vessels and people returned, and of course having the most such survivors since the Chisholmian ships had no compulsion for immediate surrender once Charisian naval supremacy was so stunningly revealed. Also, everyone knows that Hector ordered the assassination of her father. Luckily she has faced many such tough decisions since her ascension as a teenager to the throne, and now in her early twenties she is ready to make the most fateful decision ever for her country. What will it be?

On the secular enemies’ side, Prince Nahrmahn is in a pickle and he knows it. Already he is blockaded on Emerald by the Charisian navy and he is publicly known as the instigator of the assassination attempt on Cayleb just three years ago, when Merlin saved the day and made his dramatic public appearance as a Seijin from the Mountains of Light. Smarter than his jovial rotund appearance implies, Nahrmann knows a losing hand when he sees it, so he thinks to defy the Church too and try and deal with Cayleb, up to his “fertilizing a plot in Cayleb's garden” if necessary to spare Emerald and his family from certain invasion and the attendant horrors. But he hopes Cayleb will be smart enough to recognize that a compliant Nahrmahn is more useful than a dead one. Is he right?

Hector of Corisande has no illusions. He knows that after Emerald is dealt with, his turn comes next and for him there is only the “head on a spike” option if Cayleb wins, such is the deep enmity between his house and the houses of Ahrmahk of Charis and Tayt of Chisholm. So as the leader of the failed attack on Charis, he asks and gets tons of money from the Church to rebuild his navy and defenses. And he is willing to go to any lengths, including copying the newly minted Charisian military innovations that proved so deadly, whatever the Church says about proscriptions and such. Does he stand a chance?

Epic in dimension, full of stunning revelations and extraordinarily moving moments that made me almost cry, and featuring lots of intrigue and battles, “By Schism Rent Asunder” effortlessly exceeds the magnificence of its predecessor “Off Armageddon Reef”, and I cannot emphasize how much I want to read the next chapter in the Safehold saga…


Mark said...

Great review Robert! I have a bag full of Weber's Honor Harrington novels sitting in my room right now. I haven't yet touched anything he's written, but I think I'll rearrange my reading schedule.

Robert said...

Thanks ;) It was actually Liviu who wrote the review. I haven't read anything by Mr. Weber yet, but I plan to start with this series which just sounds flatout amazing!

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