01/08/2009. Contributed by Rod MacDonald
pub: Macmillan Audio. 25 hour5 CDs. Price: $69.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-42720-679-4. Read by Jason Culp.
check out website: http://us.macmillan.com/Book.aspx?isbn=
Merlin is sitting somewhere up there as he looks down on the unfortunate humans of the planet Safehold. God-like in contemplation he observes them fight out manufactured confrontations like ants on an ant hill. Meanwhile, in the vastness of space exist a malicious race by the name of the Gbaba who will one day find them and, like an ant eater, put an end to all their squabbles with one fair feast. I was hoping the Gbaba would appear during one of the alternate history battles going on in 'By Heresies Distressed' to put an end to the whole sorry scene but frankly I was disappointed.
This Merlin chappie or woman depending on the reference used for the android, must be a bit demented with a couple of slates missing from his roof. Over 1000 years in the past, the Gbaba alien race descended upon humanity and all its advanced technology to virtually wipe them out. A few escaped and ended up on the distant planet Safehold where, in order to escape the attentions of the aliens, they created a closed religious society forever entrapped in sixteenth century history.
The people know nothing. They don't know who they are, why they are there or where they are going (a bit like us in the 21st century) and all they do is fight out pointless battles in pointless wars for no particular reason worth mentioning (again, like us). If this Merlin thinks a gradual introduction of technology at a snail's pace will eventually build up this group of humans to the position where they can take on and defeat the Gbaba then he is definitely demented.
This is the third in the series. It's a long book but even so, by its conclusion technology isn't advanced to any extent, with not even a laser or spaceship in view (when will this Merlin introduce ICBM missiles and hydrogen bombs?). By the time they are ready to take on the Gbaba, we will be on book 379, looking at it optimistically or more likely book 783 and David Weber will be as old as Merlin. Nonetheless, this isn't Merlin's real purpose. He is there to give the author David Weber an excuse to write alternate history. That's all this book really is and, forgetting all about the Gbaba factor, it should be judged on this basis.
Actually, on that basis and leaving all the criticism mentioned above aside, it's a really good book with an interesting story. I had read the first two in the series and by now the main characters have grown on me. David Weber is very good at weaving plots and his description of the manipulative Group of Four is as good as anything that took place in the sixteenth century. He is also very good at describing battles and you're left in no doubt as to what takes place. Meticulous would be a way to describe his writing. This ability only comes with a significant amount of background knowledge and a great deal of painstaking research.
It's definitely worth mentioning the quality of the audio book. Jason Culp is responsible for the narration. He's been an actor for most of his life and has been putting his voice to books for more than a decade. Having not come across him before, I was pleasantly surprised with his very good style which comes through with pace, determination and alacrity. It is a pleasure to listen to his work but I would like to hear him narrating more Science Fiction literature in the future.
Now to the story. The world of Safehold is split between two major factions, each determined to outdo the other to gain power. On one side we have religious dogma, autocratically controlled by the state. The Group of Four, an ultra-conservative reactionary ensemble, is not really an evil entity. Like any person who has gained power, giving it up is not an easy task especially when God is on their side. Four of them put together is not a good idea. They compete with each other but are stalwart together in their defence of the realm. Rebels and heretics become an easy target, one which galvanises their forces and simultaneously gives an excuse for an even more ruthless regime.
The heretics consist of two kingdoms, Charis and Chisholm, allied by marriage. Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm, a young romantic woman of good character and determination, has married King Cayleb of Charis. Although they are forced together in a marriage of convenience to enable an alliance to be formed against the Church, it is also a marriage of love and respect. They are good eggs fighting against the bad eggs of the Church.
Merlin has been helping by gradually introducing new technology to enable the alliance to gain the upper hand against the Church. Believe it or not, there are sneaky devils from the Church who will stop at nothing and they even steal secrets of the new technology. This puts matters on an even keel so Merlin has to help out again. Why not nuke The Group of Four? Oh no, we can't do that. Silly me, such an action would attract the Gbaba!
The fight continues, new technology is introduced and new battles are fought. Sharleyan and Cayleb make a good couple but there's a secret between them and we all know what that does to relationships. The secret isn't something as drastic as the King dressing up in women's clothes. Now, that would be too easy. The King knows the true secrets of humanity, the aliens and everything else. Does he tell her? Wait and see! Actually, if truth be told they should get together with The Church and the entire population to tell them the truth to put an end to senseless war, death and misery. However, that would ruin the story.
The story keeps running along and there's plenty more where it came from. The author seems to be very prolific. Nonetheless, I think it's now time for a quantum shift of storyline to get them out on the sixteenth century and into a confrontation with the Gbaba. Sadly I don't think this will happen.
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