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.