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Book Review: Like a Mighty Army

By (February 11, 2014) 3 Comments

Like A Mighty Armylike a mighty army cover

by David Weber

Tor, 2014

 

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.

 

 

3 Comments »

  • Where’s the consummation in the Real World(tm), dude? It just goes on… and on… and on. If a created, fictional world is sufficiently dense, it should have the same characteristics.

    The reason readers like a long series is the -amplitude-. There’s time to build the world and characters in depth. Worldbuilding is good occupational therapy for lunatics who think they’re God; getting something that doesn’t feel thin or artificial is difficult.

    Incidentally, writing a series is -harder- than doing a standalone. It’s all too easy to get tied up in recapitulation.

    Commercially, the mark of a successful series is that it -gains- readers. Eg., Martin’s GoT series didn’t really start selling exceptionally well until about the fourth book. That simple graph differentiates the ones that go on from the ones who don’t. These days, since books remain eternally available, the phenomenon is more common — people buy one, like it, then go to Amazon and zap the entire series. Or sometimes everything the author has written.

  • Open Letters Monthly says:

    True, those created, fictional worlds should have the feeling, the amplitude (to use your excellent term) of infinite expansion, like life – but there’s a big difference between setting and story, something far too many long series forget. Yes, the Real World (™) just goes on and on and on (dude!), but fiction is a weaponized version of the real world – it has a PLOT. You’re no doubt correct that world-building is great mental exercise for god complexes, but when it’s carried to excess, it can get lost in its own details. There’s no reason in all of Creation for me to know how or where the wax is made that goes into the candles that light the weirs of Pern – and if the author tells me anyway, the author has lost some of the narrative control that separates the storyteller from the audience. Just because an author can make such details interesting doesn’t mean they should – you’re a perfect example of this! You have the writing chops to make any scene of any kind on any subject compulsively readable – but in an effectively open-ended series, there’s a strong temptation to use such Jedi powers for evil instead of good! In the later “Emberverse” novels, I know that you’ve elaborately worked out the dynamics of post-Change crop rotation or the logistics of what a feudal overlord in Oregon would serve high-ranking guests at a banquet – but too often, I know that not because it forms a consistent backdrop to your story but because it COMMANDEERS your story, sometimes for dozens of pages at a stretch. This is why I wish the writers of these series would tell their readers up front: no matter how popular this particular series is, it’s going to reach its climax and end in (say) six books. Then we move on to something new. I’d miss those worlds too once their story was done – but there’d be a lot less temptation for wheel-spinning.

    • Barry Bozeman says:

      I see this is some 2 years after this was written but it is quite enjoyable to read and agree with your observations. As a reader caught up in Safehold via Audible the wait for the next – due Nov 8 expansion – is tedious despite advancing age that seems to be accelerating time. Once I get there however I know my mental disease of impatience will have me inhaling the offering in a single session of 20 to 30 hours minus the sleep that will make me take a break despite knowing I will have 2 years before the next.

      I find myself going back to the beginning and listening through the entire series again in preparation since I can turn it on and allow it to play as i multi-task online or playing a game that does not require 100% focus. I’ve done this 4 or 5 times now.

      With TV series and “On Demand” I can wait until the series is near completion in order to binge watch which I find I prefer to the week long waits. But with Safehold it’s at least a year between installments. I don’t know if Safehold is on an upward trajectory in sales – I somehow kind of doubt it. The Weber website and forums are not too helpful in that regard. In search of other Safehold junkies in withdrawal I tried to join the Weber forum as a self-help assist 12 step AA meeting for the addicted. But there I found too many COGA Nazi’s playing turf protection games. The bullies pounced on newbies or noobs who failed to pay the proper homage to their seniority making it a less an enjoyable spot to keep my Safehold dreams alive. Musing about how Merlin “should have done x instead of Y” or just making up potential plot lines for future editions (A practice evidently frowned on by the author) or simply guessing what might happen to a character was met with antipathy instead of interest.

      Safehold is the first installment world that has sucked me in to this level of interest. I haven’t found anything like it in the other series I’ve read – although I have enjoyed S.M.Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time and The Change series – both of which I came to after they were complete.

      Merlin Cayleb and Sharlayan – (I can’t spell them since all I do is listen unable to see the odd spelling) are active in my dreams along with Nimue. I think it would be excellent fun to be Merlin in an afterlife. Until then it’s back to waiting for November.

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