Book Review: Like a Mighty Army
by David Weber
There’s a New York Times Bestseller list in Steve Hely’s hilariously pitch-perfect satire of the writing and publishing, How I Became a Famous Novelist, and right there at the #2 spot (right after Mindstretch, in which “Trang Martinez suspects that her Pilates instructor may also be a vicious serial killer”) comes Sageknights of Darkhorn, about which we’re told: “Astrid Soulblighter attempts to reclaim the throne from the wicked Scarkrig clan.” And then the kicker:“The fifteenth volume in the ‘Bloodrealms’ series.”
Since the aim of satire is to subtract comfort from familiarity, there’s scarcely a reader who won’t instantly recognize the formula behind that mocking description. This is the Faustian bargain hammered out by all the multi-part series that fill the sci-fi/fantasy shelves of your local evil chain bookstore: on the one hand, you have that “fifteenth volume” business, so utterly lethal to gaining new readers, and on the other hand, you have, well, the New York Times bestseller list. You lock in an audience of faithful readers determined to see the series out to its increasingly hypothetical end, but you lock yourself in with those readers. There’s no denying the commercial viability of the gimmick – before George R. R. Martin’s ongoing“A Song of Ice and Fire,” there was the late Robert Jordan’s“Wheel of Time” series, which continued to notch bestsellers and was only brought to its long-awaited conclusion after the author’s death. But there’s also no real denying the sneaking suspicion that these authors could be doing better things with their writing. Worse: that they would be doing better things with their writing if they themselves were slightly better writers, not quite so all-consumingly caught up in what’s popular.
Popular is seductive, of course: any reader who’s ever invested time in following a long series will know the thrill of anticipating each installment, the fun of catching up with favorite characters, the pure what-happens-next slow-folding fascination of it all. These things can often compensate for the inevitable squirrelly detours and dull patches (this is also true outside the sci-fi/fantasy realm; I swear there’s a late number in the Aubrey-Maturin novels where the only thing that actually happens in 185 pages is that Stephen Maturin trips and falls down a flight of stairs). The key trick is to construct a framework that can sustain almost any amount of elaboration. In Anne McCaffrey’s beloved Pern books, her valiant dragonriders must fly as long as the deadly thread is in the sky. In the Martin books, medieval-style dynastic houses may fight all they like, but winter is coming. In Jordan’s books, the Wheel of Time itself is an excuse for endless repetition.
And then there’s sci-fi author David Weber, about whom it can fairly be said he never met a long-running series he didn’t like. In addition to the thirteen volumes in his wildly popular Honor Harrington series, the three books in his Dahak series, and the five books in his War God series, there’s also six or seven books in various ‘subseries’ sharing these volumes’ interlinked imaginary universes. And his latest hardcover, Like a Mighty Army, is the seventh book in his Safehold series. This is an author who very likely intones “To Be Continued” into the bathroom mirror every night when he brushes his teeth.
He’s an energetically inventive old hack, and the framework he’s set in place for the Safehold novels is crackerjack (beginning in 2007’s memorably good Off Armageddon Reef). In the far future, the human race has spread to other solar systems and built itself a space navy, and that navy – and very nearly mankind itself – is wiped out by an alien race called the Gbaba, whose self-defense instincts are triggered by the advanced technology they encounter. Shocked and reeling, the leaders of mankind come up with a desperate ploy to save the species: get rid of the advanced technology. On the farthest fringes of human space, they fill an Earth-like world with colonists and mind-wipe them of all memory of the advanced technology that got them there. In its place, they implement what they see as a foolproof firewall against any resurgence in technological innovation: an organized religion, the Church of God Awaiting, which anathematizes science. Mankind will survive, yes, but in the permanent adolescence of wind-driven sailing vessels and bloodied chain-mail and avaricious, worldly bishops.
It’s endlessly catchy (although obnoxious to anybody who cares to recall how many of humanity’s great writers, thinkers, artists, and, yes, scientists were in holy orders or at least prayed by their bedsides at night), and it looks a lot like Weber does indeed intend it to be endless. This latest novel, Like a Mighty Army, advances the many intertwined ongoing plotlines of that lost colony of Safehold, and long-time readers of this series will get all the kinds of things they’ve most come to like: lavish details of Weber’s archipelago-peppered world, sharp, primary-color characters both good and evil, and most of all gripping action-sequences on land and sea. The cast here is enormous, and the world of Safehold has been imagined down to the last thumb-tack (the sheer geeky specificity of the glossary at the back is the single most frightening thing in the book), and scene after scene is first threatened by the rising tide of this Proper Noun Gobbledegook and then saved by Weber’s sure-fire knack for storytelling:
“Anytime now, My Lord,” Colonel Maindayl said quietly at Cathnyr Kaitswyrth’s elbow. Only someone who knew the Army of Glacierheart’s chief of staff well would have recognized the anxiety in Maindayl’s brown eyes as he peered down at his pocket watch, its hands gleaming golden in the lantern light.
“Assuming they kick off on time, anyway,” Kaitswyrth replied sourly.
“Pohstazhian, Scovayl, and Waimyan all know their business, My Lord, and they’d have send word if they expected to be delayed. They may be off a minute or two either way, but no more than that.”
Kaitswyrth only grunted. It wasn’t that he disagreed with Maindayl. After Bishop Gahrmyn’s Chihiro Division, Khalryn Waimyan’s Zion Division. Pohstazhian’s Sulyvyn Division, and Tymahn Scovayl’s Fyrgyrsyn Division were the three best he had, and Chihiro was still integrating replacements after that fiasco on the Haidyrberg Road, but that didn’t make him any happier about what his own orders were about to demand of the men in those units. Plenty of his other divisions could follow where Zion, Sulyvyn, and Fyrgyrsyn led, but it was going to take something special to carry through against the heretics under these conditions. If anyone could do it, they would, whatever the cost, yet …
The bishop militant shook his head. It was goo late for second thoughts. They were committed, and in the next few minutes they’d be finding out if it could be done at all.
(In case you were wondering about those weirder-than-usual names, they’re Weber’s phonetic approximation of how language would change on Safehold over the eight centuries since its founding; so “Sullivan” would become “Sulyvyn,” “Ferguson” would become “Fyrgyrsyn,” and so on – because in the future, apparently, all linguistic roads converge on the American Midwest.)
The thing that’s missing from all this rollicking good fun (as from the lives of most of its readers? We shall not pry …) is consummation. That’s the biggest problem with the lure of the ongoing series: they must continuously postpone actually getting where they’re going. The ultimate conclusion of, for instance, the Pern books is that the iron-age inhabitants of Pern, with their leather jerkins and their fire-breathing dragons, somehow achieve the technological ability to stop the deadly thread from falling in the first place; in S.M. Stirling’s hugely entertaining “Emberverse” series, in which all the world’s non-mechanical technology has suddenly stopped working, the ultimate conclusion is for its characters to figure out why that happened. And in Weber’s “Safehold” series, the payoff at the end must certainly be rebirth and retribution: that eventually, this splinter-colony of humans regains the standing and technology to emerge from their pocket-world, defeat the Gbaba, and re-establish the human race complete with electric lights and high-speed wi-fi. Enormously enjoyable as books like Like A Mighty Army are, they’re supposed to be steps on the path to a grand, operatic conclusion.
But don’t hold your breath.