By Heresies Distressed
David Weber, read by Jason Culp
Tor/Macmillan Audio, 2009
By Heresies Distressed is the third novel in Weber’s Safehold series. For the uninitiated the plot revolves around the planet Safehold where, centuries prior, a group of colonists and scientists fled the merciless G’baba (sp?). In order to avoid detection by the G’baba it was decided that the colonist’s memories would be wiped and the technology level reduced to something more akin to medieval times. Unfortunately for the colonists control of the project was taken over by Langhorne who set himself, and his allies, as an archangel/deific figure. Other scientists rebelled against Langhorne’s unethical actions but were cut down by orbital weapons. Now, centuries later, Safehold is home to the Church of God Awaiting who follow the “theological” teachings of Langhorne and his archangels.
The first two novels focused on the cybernetic being Merlin Athrawes, a sort of failsafe left behind by “good” scientist Pei Shan Wei, as he attempts to steer the kingdom of Charis towards an industrial revolution while simultaneously trying to uproot centuries of religious indoctrination. In Off Armageddon Reef, Charis fought off the combined forces of several nations thanks to the technological innovations brought on by Merlin though they lost their King in the process. Declaring an official Schism with the church Charis, under the leadership of King Caleb, begins the slow march to empire adding several key areas to its domain in By Schism Rent Asunder. Now, almost an empire in truth Emperor Caleb has launched an assault the Princedom of Corrisande and it’s long-time ruler and long-time ruler Prince Hector.
Weber shows a certain mastery of large scale action scenes that was honed to near perfection in the large space battles seen in his Honor Harrington series and the large conventional naval battles seen earlier in the Safehold series. By Heresies Distressed is the first time I can really recall Weber writing large scale land battles. The land conflict that occurs on Corrisande is some truly thrilling stuff that mixes the classic tactics of Napoleon era with anachronistic twists on modern tactics. Indeed the larger conflicts, particularly early in the invasion, brought me right back to Professor Mustafa’s Napoleon class and called to mind the enthusiastic manner in which he described some of the key battles of the Napoleonic Era. I will unabashedly say that it is a good thing that Weber’s writing calls to mind that of history professor; though other might not necessarily agree.
By Heresies Distressed also managed to avoid one of my major problems with By Schism Rent Asunder as it included none of the “how can I cleverly recreate this technology with the limited resources I have” exposition that plagued the earlier novel. While I certainly gravitated towards Weber’s action scenes the political sections of the novel were almost as engaging as the action scenes. Those same scenes also gave Weber a chance to better familiarize reader with Caleb’s new wife Sharleyan of Chisholm (now a “equal” partner in the Empire of Charis) whose wit, headstrong nature, tomboy tendencies, and general willfulness make her rather entertaining to read (or listen as the case may have it). Oddly, particularly for Weber, Sharleyan is the only major player right now who is a woman and while several others might step-up later in the series, the POVs are dominated by men. Those other, more minor characters, are forthright and typically independent women and I’d certainly like to see more Angelique the madame/spy in the temple city of Zion.
If my muddled summary above is any indication there was a lot building up to the start By Heresies Distressed and a lot of building up for what comes next as well. Regardless, if you missed the first two books and loathe going back By Heresies Distressed is certainly an easier book to read as a standalone. Still there is a lot of world building in every book and, in a series who major theme is enacting shifts in technology and religion, there are significant changes from novel to novel. In my opinion By Heresies Distressed is the strongest book in the series so far but, as even Cayleb states towards the novel’s end, where things go now is a rather large question mark. I certainly look forward to finding out.
For the audio version Jason Culp reads once again and once again does a good job just shy of great. There is something I find a bit grating about his voice, though it maybe just me, but he is surprisingly diverse with his ability to create distinct voices for all his characters from the clean, enunciated tones of Merlin, to the faint Scottish accent of Cayleb, to the gruff and terse voice of Grand Inquisitor Clintan, Culp manages to convey a distinct identity through tone, pitch, accent and speech patterns of each characters. While I certainly miss the additional production found on the Star Wars titles I’ve been listening to lately Culps diverse tones manage to create an immersive and memorable experience.