Fri
Jan 10 2014 5:00pm

Battles and Techsposition: Like a Mighty Army by David Weber

David Weber Safehold Like a Mighty Army

David Weber’s Safehold series, now into its seventh volume, has thus far followed a very consistent pattern: people invent or rediscover new technologies, and use them to kill their enemies in new and inventive ways. I understand the general appeal of paragraphs on paragraphs describing the mechanisms and applications of a breech-loading rifle, and the chapters on chapters that give snapshots of military engagements, a lot more after having discovered the entertaining possibilities of real-time strategy games than I did before—but I remain convinced that the extent of Weber’s technological exposition detracts significantly from his ability to tell a good story.

Mind you, the fact that I’m still reading his novels tells you a lot about the triumph of hope over experience.

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead!

In Like a Mighty Army, the land war in Siddarmark begun in Midst Toil And Tribulation has entered a new phase. The Charisian Empire’s expeditionary forces, alongside the surviving troops of the Republic of Siddarmark, have brought the Church of God Awaiting’s massive invasion to a halt for the time being. But Mother Church’s manpower resources are deep, and it will take all the Charisian Empire’s technological advances and all of the ingenuity of its commanders—and all of the surveillance capabilities of Merlin Athrawes, cybernetic avatar and last survivor of the centuries-dead Terran Federation—in order to prevent them from losing any further ground, and to prepare the way to take the fight to Church of God Awaiting. Especially since the Church is making up at least some ground on the technological advances front. And holds the high ground in terms of sheer viciousness: the present management of its Inquisition rivals anything in the history books for brutality.

Meanwhile, the emperor and empress of Charis are kept apart by the need to have someone on the ground negotiating a treaty with the Siddarmarkians while the other sees to the business of empire, and Princess Irys Daykyn and Prince Daivyn return to Corisande. In Corisande, Irys is all set to marry the rather heroic relative of the aforesaid emperor and empress, one Hector Aplyn-Ahrmak, until an assassin intervenes in the cathedral.

Spoiler: both members of the wedding party survive.

This brings it home to Merlin that even he cannot be everywhere. So he chooses to create another cybernetic avatar, loaded with a previous instantiation of his personality: the one he had when he first woke up to the world of Safehold, Terran Federation Lieutenant-Commander Nimue Alban.

Battles, techsposition, and rumination on the nature of divinity combine with occasional sparks of character. It was character that drew me to Weber’s books in the first place, but in a cast of dozens—perhaps hundreds—there is very little of that, proportionally, here. Anyone who’s still reading the Safehold series knows full well what to expect, for Like A Mighty Army follows the established model. The battles are larger in scale and the military technology moving rapidly towards the patterns of the early twentieth century, but anyone who’s looking for a significant change or a move towards a more definitive resolution of the war with the Church should not hope to find satisfaction here.

The pacing and tension remains just as uneven, or perhaps moreso, as its immediate predecessors. Personally, I find it hard to get worked up about individual battles when I have little emotional investment in their individual participants, and battles—and manoeuvring to give battle, and the problems of logistics and supply—take up the vast majority of the pages within this book. If that’s the sort of thing that thrills you, this is definitely a volume for you.

As for me personally, I think I’ve come to the end of my patience with Safehold. In future I’ll stick with Clauswitz On War and Showalter on the wars of Frederick the Great. It’ll be less frustrating than wargames interspersed with flickers of character that never quite develop.

 

Like a Mighty Army is available February 18th from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

27 comments
Martin Cohn
1. arixan
I am a big David Weber fan, but this series is killing me. Seven books into what should be a multi-generational world building (rebuilding) and we are something like ten years elapsed with no end in sight.
MandyP12
2. MandyP12
I stopped after book four. My dad and I were both reading them and we both really enjoyed the concept and there were hints of such great characters. But I could only take so much exposition on technological advancement.

I already had to read all that in my engineering text books, why would I want to read it in my fiction as well?
Ralph Feldhake
3. feldhake
Can you please put a spoiler warning at the top of the post?
Hector Aplyn-Ahrmak's fate and the identity of the woman on the cover have been topics of much speculation over on Dave Weber's forums, and both are breezily tossed out here without much advance warning.
MandyP12
4. Ryan H
I enjoyed the ideas behind the Safehold series the first times I read them, in Weber's third Dahak book and the second Prince Roger book. And unfortunately that's all the Safehold series is, a rehashing of bits and pieces of setting from his previous novels along with REALLY in-depth detailing of Weber's-Theories-On-The-Industrial-Revolution.

Oh, and he's grafted on some bits and pieces of the Protestant reformation. But those don't really work well either because it doesn't actually fit the setting he's established. In a world where the physical proof of their religion is deeply established, every priest of any power just happens to be corrupt and everyone of good faith and genuine belief happily agrees to overthrow the church.

Which is really my biggest disappointment with the series. When he lets it out, Weber can be excellent at crafting antagonists with genuine understandable motivation. It's one of the reasons the Honor Harrington books worked so well for so long; The bad guys were more than mustache twirling villains and the good guys often had their own motovations. However, here all of that has been jettisoned so as not to take away page count from his technological development thesis.

At least it's not as bad as some of Ringo's recent books. To Sail a Darkling Sea reads like Ringo had a minimum ratio of plot to exposition forced on him. At least one page of plot for every three of political diatribe or we don't publish!
James Goetsch
5. Jedikalos
Just to say "spoiler:" at the beginning of a sentence doesn't seem sufficient. Feldhake's comment seems appropriate.
Liz Bourke
6. hawkwing-lb
feldhake @3 and Jedikalos @5:

Neither of the things to which you refer, or their consequences, occupy more than a bare handful of scenes in a very long book. If Weber will treat his characters as inconsequential adjuncts to a novel of technological progress and battle, then I decline to justify my decision to do the same.

Ryan H @4:

I no longer read Ringo, because he infallibly causes me deep irritation tending to anger. But as for Safehold - yes. You've summed up my problems with it exactly.
MandyP12
7. between4walls
A spoiler warning doesn't seem like much to ask when discussing the outcome of an assassination attempt, for the sake of Weber's fans rather than Weber himself.
Ralph Feldhake
8. feldhake
My biggest problem with the Safehold series continues to be the bizarre, semi-phonetic gibberish that are the characters' names. It makes it extremely difficult to remember the names of all but the most major characters (at least the books have always had a list of characters at the end) and adds a layer of frustration that seems entirely unnecessary.

As to your primary complaint with the text, that it contains too much techsposition, I guess I feel that this accusation amounts to saying "this is a Dave Weber novel." True enough, I imagine, but surely unsurprising?

Lastly, I hope you'll reconsider adding a spoiler warning. I appreciate the fact that the book failed to make you care about the characters--I've never made it more than 50 pages into Mutineers' Moon for that very reason!--but I hope you will understand that others won't see it that way and will be disappointed to come across these hotly-discussed events unaware.

The rest of us still have a month to wait before we'll get a chance to form our own opinions on the text, remember.
MandyP12
9. Ryan H
re: The spoiler warning, I think it's good manners for any media review/criticism to list at the top if spoilers will be involved or if it is spoiler free.

@hawkwing-lb

Thank you. I've spent some time thinking about why I haven't enjoyed the recent work of many of the Baen authors, even when I continue to enjoy re-reading their older work, as well as any of their older stuff than I happen to have previously missed.

Honestly, I think it can be pegged to Jim Baen's passing. I just don't think there is anyone on the editorial side who has the clout to really push anymore. When Jim published things you could be pretty certain it would be first and foremost a good book, even if its particular style or ideology wasn't to your preference. Now it feels like no one is asking "Yeah, but does such-and-such make it a better or worse book" with the authority to stand up if they don't like the answer.

The Safehold series should be fantastic. A Protestant Reformation analogue with an enforced Industrial Revolution under the threat of Alien Menaces? Yes please, and with a cherry on top. But an editor should have sent back the manuscript with a big red "Nice world bible/tech manual/series outline. Needs actual plot development".

As a aside, does the Tor comment text field drive anyone else completely batty? It screws up the Firefox (and I assume other browsers) spell-check and only adds a few basic markup buttons in return. It is less functional than a basic text field would be.
MandyP12
10. James Davis Nicoll
Honestly, I think it can be pegged to Jim Baen's passing.

Isn't this series from Tor?
Paul Howard
11. DrakBibliophile
For some time, I have been posting snippets for various authors including David Weber. In many of cases, I get the complete book ahead of time. It is understood by me that I am not allowed to post spoilers of the books as a condition of getting the complete book ahead of time.

Now, I'm not a "professional" in that I don't get paid for this.

It is therefore extremely annoying when a professional reviewer posts, without warning, spoilers of an upcoming book.

Plenty of people have heard about this review on David Weber's place and are understandably annoyed with Ms Bourke.

For what it is worth, I had purchased an ARC of this book since David Weber had decided to post snippets of it himself.

I have not posted "spoilers" concerning the book even when people on David Weber's place were speculating wildly concerning the subjects that Ms Bourke posted spoilers about.
MandyP12
12. vanye
I just can't read this series much. Every time I try, I'm reminded of the third Imperium novel, where he did pretty much this plot, much shorter, and with fewer frakked up names.
Katharine Duckett
16. Katharine
Comments 13-15 deleted. While you're certainly free to disagree with the content of the review, disrespect of our reviewers will not be tolerated. Please refer to our moderation policy if you have any doubts about what falls within our guidelines, and make sure to keep this discussion about the book. Thank you.
Liz Bourke
17. hawkwing-lb
between4walls @7, feldhake @8, Ryan H. @9:

...You probably have a point. On the other hand, I'm used to the text signalling a bit more strongly what it considers important/significant, and that made my initial response crankier than it ought to've been.

My own experience with reading reviews is caveat lector: I've yet to come across one that proved in any measure useful to me as a reader that did not reveal something important - which is why if I want to come to the work fresh, I don't read reviews in the first place.

Katherine @16:

Does Tor.com have a spoiler policy, official or unofficial? I may have missed such a thing, in being over-hasty.
Katharine Duckett
18. Katharine
For everyone who commented on possible spoilers: there's now a spoiler warning in the post, and thanks for bringing that to our attention.
Nick Hlavacek
19. Nick31
I can appreciate the criticism of the book itself, and to an extent I even agree with some of the points about the extensive number of characters and the slow pacing. Despite that, I have enjoyed reading all the previous books and am looking forward to this one. I guess I'm just the kind of reader that likes infodumps. :)

@18 - Thanks for adding the warning. While I can't say for certain that every review I've read here that contained spoilers had a warning to that effect, I don't recall any that have actually spoiled something for me. Until now. I've been following the snippets David has posted on his forum for his fans, and he's made an deliberate effort there to not reveal the spoilers above. I'm relieved to know that a character I like survives, but I'd have preferred to have found out in the book itself. It might be a minor point in the book overall, but Weber fans are known to be rather detail oriented.

If there is no spoiler policy, perhaps this would be a good time to suggest that any review of materiel not yet published contain a warning to prevent this type of problem.
Paul Howard
20. DrakBibliophile
Katharine, thank you for adding the spoiler warning. While I don't agree with the review, the spoilers bothered me more than the review itself.
MandyP12
21. Ragnarredbeard
I protest. I was defending the reviewer.
Katharine Duckett
22. Katharine
@21 We know! It's easier to unpublish the entire conversation pertaining to the attack on the reviewer than leave comments that cite a now-unpublished comment (if that word game of a sentence makes sense). But I wasn't including your comment under the category of disrespecting the reviewers--apologies for that confusion!
Dylan Tullos
23. dptullos
Ms. Bourke, I would like to thank you for addressing a problem that science fiction (and, to a lesser extent, fantasy) has suffered from for a long time. Time and time again, I have seen reviewers and commentators complaining about how science fiction and fantasy are not treated as part of literature, but as a distinct and inferior class of writing. They are correct to complain about this stereotype, and they are also right to point out how many works in these fields could easily be classified as literature. However, I have rarely seen anyone examine how science fiction writers help to create this stereotype through their open indifference to characters, the plot of their stories, and the pacing and style of their writing.

I personally enjoy worldbuilding. I like to read stories with magic or advanced technology. I've always appreciated the fun, "magical" elements of science fiction, where we get to see a fascinating new world filled with alien yet strangely familiar people. I loved the idea of distinctive, fun characters traveling the universe in search of adventure. And when science fiction writers were able to populate their world with realistic characters who faced meaningful moral choices, I loved it even more.

There is nothing wrong with "fun". There is nothing wrong with "serious". And there is certainly nothing wrong with books that combine the two in a way that works. Science fiction's problem is that too many authors embrace a kind of fake moral depth. They want to incorporate darker elements in their story, but they don't want to do so in a way that compromises their heroes or detracts from their focus on technology. David Weber's Safehold series is a particulary good example of this mistake. Here are some examples.

1. Heroes don't have real disagreements. In real life, there are tight-knit, deeply loyal groups of people who are committed to each other and the cause they serve. Their shared experience and sacrifice have brought them beyond simple liking and respect; they love each other like family.

And as all of us know so well, families argue all of the time. People who have spent their lives together, who trust each other with everything and would gladly die for each other, fight about small issues. It doesn't matter how much they agree. In fact, the more they agree, the more vehement their arguments often become, since the other person should know better.

In the Safehold series, however, heroes don't really disagree. They will dutifully lay out the different options they have, and discuss all of the advantages and disadvantages of each one. And in the end, they will all settle on a single course of action, and agree to pursue it in perfect harmony, with no dissenting voices.

Heroes can share the same ultimate objectives. They can even share a general consensus on the means they should use to reach those objectives. But that agreement doesn't mean that they won't be divided by furious internal disagreements, often over what seem to be trivial matters. David Weber's heroes don't do that. They never have any lasting dissent or meaningful internal division. Even when an entire new country joins with Charis to form an empire, the top military and political leaders of each nation work together with no real difficulties, all distinctions of nationality, class, gender, and personality notwithstanding.

Real people don't act that way. Real heroes don't act that way. Only science fiction "heroes" lose their personality to become part of a formless mass of Good Guys who become increasingly indistinguishable as the series progresses.

2. War may be hell, but atrocities are reserved for the bad guys.

Time and time again, David Weber reminds us that the only war more terrible than civil war is a religious civil war. And he's right. When both sides are utterly convinced that God is on their side, when everyone knows that their enemies are God's enemies, then any action designed to hurt those enemies must be all right with the Almighty. Having clearly and effectively stated this fundamental truth, David Weber then spends the rest of his time ignoring it.

The Inquisition tortures every Charisian prisoner they capture. They do so publicly and with great pride. Yet when Charisians take prisoners, they never retaliate. Ever. This tolerance isn't just reserved for the enemy's rank and file, but for high-ranking officers, including high-ranking Church officers. Their reason for this perfect behavior? The Emperor said so. They may know many of the sailors being tortured to death publicly- they may have friends or family who died slowly and horribly- but orders are orders, and besides, retaliation is wrong. This decision is portrayed not as a struggle for each individual who faces it, but as a simple and automatic part of being a Good Guy. Because, as we all know, Good Guys never do anything wrong.

Of course, David Weber does let us know that Siddarmark's civil war is a horrible and bloody affair, where both sides commit horrible atrocities without the slightest qualm. But this is simply an author proclamation with no basis in the actual work. While the Temple and their loyalists gleefully sanction rape, torture, and the starvation and slaughter of entire cities, Charis's noble Siddarmark allies commit "war crimes" such as hanging enemy soldiers for crimes against humanity, not taking prisoners that they cannot feed, and intercepting food shipments that were going to innocent noncombatants related to the Temple loyalists of Siddarmark. Before you start thinking that the last of those "war crimes" is for real, keep in mind that their only choice is between taking the food or seeing their own families starve. Even then, David Weber never actually lets us see the starving families of Temple loyalists, probably because that might cause us to doubt the moral perfection of Charis's allies. We spend pages and pages seeing the Church's innumerable atrocities firsthand, but any unpleasantness inflicted on the innocent by our heroes and their friends is neatly swept under the rug.

3. Check the character index to find out who just died.

Though Ms. Bourke has already done an excellent and concise job of making this point, I would like to elaborate on it briefly. Over the course of any Safehold book, we will probably meet dozens, if not hundreds, of minor characters. Even without their incomprehensible phonetic names, it's very hard to keep track. Fortunately, we don't really have to remember who is who, since no one really cares. Most of the villains just exist to be killed off in demonstrations of Charis's technological brilliance, while the "characters" on the side of the angels exist to use advanced technology, agree fawningly with their beloved King(later Emperor), and be impressed by Merlin's amazing insight.

Minor characters often don't have the time needed for a full character arc or in-depth character development. So good minor characters often have a kind of "flair", a few distictive characteristics that make them memorable and set them apart from the crowd. These small, vital details help us see them as something more than convenient pawns. Look at Lucius Malfoy or Fenrir Grayback from Harry Potter; they're both relatively minor villain characters, yet they are memorable and interesting. Weber's minor characters, on the other hand, could change places without any noticeable difference in the reading experience. They simply exist to plug a hole and advance the plot, and we forget their names as soon as the section ends, or even while it's still going on.

4. Becoming a good guy is a form of character death.

Everyone who's read Safehold will remember Nahrmahn Baytz. Safehold has no lack of villains, but it certainly does have a shortage of antagonists who aren't stupid, fanatical to the point of idiocy, incapable of learning, or fundamentally uninteresting. As a smart, self-serving, and imaginative villain, Nahrmahn really stood out. When I realized that he was going to defect, I saw a real possibility of improvement in the books.

Nahrmahn was always aware of the Temple's corruption, sadism, and general idiocy. I hoped that he could be quickly brought into the inner circle, learn about the true history of Safehold, and provide a different perspective to the Good Guys. While everyone else would just stand around happily agreeing with everything Cayleb and Merlin said, Nahrmahn would provide the same incisive, irreverent, and imaginative thinking that had distinguished him as a villain. Instead of simply having a single Good Guy plan, we could actually have a voice of loyal dissent offering alternatives to Merlin's thinking.

I don't know why I was optimistic. Once Nahrmahn joined the good guys and discovered the truth, he immediately signed onto every aspect of Merlin's thinking. Not just his objectives, not just his ideals, but every single aspect. He went from being a distinct person to yet another yes-man for the main protagonists. The megalomaniacal Grand Inquisitor, who views any dissent as "heresy" punishable by burning, has a more opinionated group of subordinates than our beloved heroes, who never hear anything more than the most tempered "criticism".

5. Mary Sue saves the day!

Emperor Cayleb is a wonderful king, a brilliant admiral, a cunning diplomat, a loyal friend, a kind man, and a doting husband and father. His chief problem is that he can't stand to sit back and let other people do his fighting for him; he wants to be a brave soldier, too. Of course, many authors struggle to create morally flawed characters who remain sympathetic. David Weber avoids that problem by having characters who don't have moral flaws. Or any other kind. When Merlin isn't bringing rightful justice to evil torturers who eat puppies raw, he's developing another brilliant plan, solemnly considering the human cost of his heroic and unquestionably necessary actions, or saving heroic dissidents from the aforementioned evil torturers. Not only is he never wrong in his moral judgments, he's never really wrong in any important judgment, though he's always beating himself up for not magically being everywhere to save everyone. That's moral depth in the Safehold universe; heroes criticize themselves for fake flaws, purely so that their friends can tell them how awesome they are.

6. David Weber isn't alone.

We can have fun with technology, explosions, and great battles. I certainly do. We should have characters we like who simply explore the universe without taking themselves too seriously. We should have characters with real moral depth, who use a fantastic setting to look at the great questions of our time. And we should have both, if authors are skilled enough to pull it off. The problem comes when authors lose track of what they're trying to do. When they want to have perfect heroes and moustache-twirling villains dealing with real problems. When they want to show us fantastic technology while telling us to care about people that we never truly meet, who are never made real to us. And as people who enjoy science fiction, part of our job is to call out writing like that when we see it.
Alan Brown
24. AlanBrown
I read this article because I respect the reviewer's opinion, and in this case, she and I share the same opinion. Mr. Weber has written some good stuff, but his work has suffered from severe bloating as his career has gone on. I had given up on Honor Harrington for many of the reasons folks have described above. And hadn't even started on this particular series. I love detail and explainations, but too much and it becomes like reading an encyclopedia. But without the satisfaction of knowing you are learning something that reading history or an encyclopedia brings to the reader.
It's too bad, because Mr. Weber comes up with some great ideas, driving plots, and interesting settings. There have been times when his writing has been tough to put down. But over time, I have found it impossible to wade through the morass to get to the good stuff.
More showing instead of telling, less telling in general, and a little more attention to well rounded characters, and I could easily be brought back into the fold.
James Goetsch
25. Jedikalos
@18: Thanks for posting the spoiler warning. Some of us do enjoy Weber's series very much (and can take harsh reviews in our stride!)--but the spoilers were not a good thing. I have gotten used to the TOR site always having those warnings before the jump.
MandyP12
26. Tim McDonald44
I generally find that the less reveiwers like a book (or movie) the better I like it.

Of course, I have yet to meet a reviewer with a technical degree or much knowledge of history, which may go a long way in explanation.

I don't really expect LAMA to be any different.
Dylan Tullos
27. dptullos
@Tim McDonald44

I think the degree of detail is a significant mark against Safehold; if you need to have a technical degree to be interested in large parts of a book, then it may have crossed the line between a novel with lots of technology and a tech bible with some plot elements.

I'm a history major, and the Reformation was one of my areas I studied in my undergraduate years. I learned a great deal about the politics and warfare of the period. But the most important thing I learned is that the people who lived during the Reformation were real, not cardboard cutouts who existed to make a convenient point. All of the battles, treaties, and diplomatic manuevering of the time weren't just clever games; people lived and died because of them. And that's what David Weber never really shows us. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and the people who die along the way are faceless nobodies who only exist to illustrate the awesomeness of the heroes or the villainy of the villains. That's not good history, and it's not particularly good literature, either.
MandyP12
28. renniejoy
I gave up on this series a while ago because it seemed like the focus was on the tech rather than any characters.

I still like the Harrington novels, though, and I'm looking forward to the upcoming Torch novel.
Alan Brown
29. AlanBrown
There is an Honor Harrington comic book premiering soon, and I am looking forward to it, because I enjoy the character and the settings, and in the graphic media, there is only so much exposition you can cram into a word or thought balloon!
MandyP12
30. renniejoy
AlanBrown - Thanks for the info! I will have to check that out!

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