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By Heresies Distressed by David Weber
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765315038
Date: 21 July 2009 List Price $27.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Review of the Audio / Show Official Info /

By Heresies Distressed is the third book in the Safehold series begun with Off Armageddon Reef. This series can best be described as science fiction for readers who prefer fantasy. The alien Gbaba have defeated humanity everywhere except for the planet Safehold where an elaborate religion that has outlawed technological progress keeps the planet from being detected.

But, as part of a secret plan within the plan, the mind of Nimue Alban, Fleet officer, was placed inside a Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar with instructions to prepare humanity technologically to fight the Gbaba once again. This requires fighting the anti-progress Church, which has become corrupt. So, Nimue, now disguised as a male seijin, sort of a mythic superpowered warrior (as her android body is faster and stronger than regular humans), named Merlin Athrawes, who has become personal armsman (bodyguard) and secret advisor to Emperor King Cayleb of Charis, a kingdom willing to accept technological innovation and fight the Church.

Merlin does not introduce advanced technology out of nowhere but works with the craftsmen and plants hints so that Charis makes incremental advances on existing knowledge. So, essentially Weber has created the equivalent of a fantasy with technology levels resembling our 18th century, conspiracies in the worldwide church, kings and queens as the full rulers of their nations, and one super powered being on the side of good against evil.

There are two main plotlines in By Heresies Distressed. One is following up an incident in the previous book in which Delferahkan soldiers, instigated by priests of the Inquisition, slaughtered the crew of Charisian merchant ships, including their women and children. In response, in this book, Emperor Cayleb, not only punishes Ferayd, the city where the massacre took place, but executes the priests, the first time in this world’s history that secular authorities have punished religious ones. This almost splits the Group of Four who control the Church, forcing the head of the Inquisition to accept public penance for what his priests did, but bringing the Church closer to declaring Holy War.

The second plotline concerns Empress Sharleyan (formerly the Queen of Chistholm in her own right, before Cayleb married her and unified their two kingdoms into an Empire). Merlin and Cayleb have not yet revealed the truth about Merlin and Safehold to her (because of a promise they made to the Bretheren of Saint Zherneau, a pro-innovation secret society). But pro-Church factions in Charis, including her own Uncle, have launched a secret scheme to assassinate Sharleyan to split the empire and pit Chistholm against Charis. Meanwhile, the royal couple and their advisers strive to unify and expand their new Empire, quiet the aristocracy, and make further technological advances.

As always, Weber does well with his battle scenes and even readers with no military knowledge can sympathize with a commander who realizes that his men are in exactly the wrong spot or when politics forces the person who does the right thing for the wrong reasons to be rewarded. There are also fewer moments where describing the equipment slows down the action. Cayleb's military advances lead to an interesting moment where Merlin's spy satellites provide crucial information about the enemy's location but they cannot use this information without revealing extraordinary powers that the Church could claim came from consulting demons (and Merlin points out that by the Church's definition he is a demon). But Merlin actually makes the analogy to Churchill and the bombing of Coventry, when Churchill couldn't warn the city because then the Nazis' would know that their code was broken. Of course, since Cayleb is a fictional hero, he finds a way to hint at a warning to his commander and ultimately wins the battle.

Unfortunately, one problem from previous books continues--the characterization is weak. The good guys are all unbelievably good. Cayleb is a good fighter, a clever strategist, noble in the best use of the term. Despite setting out to conquer the world and overthrow the Church, he is not arrogant or greedy. Sharleyan is brave and a crack shot with a pistol. Even though their marriage is made for political reasons, the two quickly fall in love and truly trust each other. Worse yet, the other characters seem compelled to comment on what a great guy Cayleb is and how well suited each of the royal couple is for the other. And, while the fact that the male Merlin truly is a cyborg operated by a woman's mind, was at least occasionally brought up in the first book, it seems largely forgotten in this one. However, Weber is doing a better job with some of the villains, one of the Group of Four becomes somewhat religious in his own way (that still allows him to work with the corrupt leaders) and Trynair (one of the Church leaders) shows distaste for some of the actions of the Inquisitor. Still, Merlin, Cayleb, and Sharleyan are fun and frequently amusing.

Readers who like lengthy series novels with hundreds of characters (there's a ten page list of characters at the back), battles where the action stops to describe the strategy or weapons, and religious disputes should give this series a try. Oddly enough, fans of fantasy novels that emphasize military campaigns will feel more at home with this medium-tech warfare than those who like high-tech science fiction.

By Heresies Distressed is the third book of a series of undetermined length and quite clearly does not stand alone. Readers who want to give this a try should start with Off Armageddon Reef. While Weber is writing entertainment, not great literature, he is very good at what he does. This may be the ideal series for fantasy fans who want to venture into science fiction.

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