David Weber's Like a Mighty Army is the latest in his Safehold Series, a post-apocalyptic step back in time. In some ways the older books have read almost like a period piece set in the European Renaissance, although the Harchong Empire does seem similar in ways to feudal China. Like a Mighty Army and, to a lesser extent its predecessor, Midst Toil and Tribulation read more steampunkish. This is a good thing as one of the major goals of the series protagonist, Merlin Athrawes, is to gradually increase the tech base of the planet Safehold until it is capable of fighting against an genocidal alien race known as the Gbaba.
The story itself covers a year of campaigning in a war pitting The Empire of Charis against the Church of God Awaiting and its corrupt leadership, the Group of Four. This war is not new to this book and has in fact been going on for nearly the whole series. Things are looking grim for The Empire of Charis and its ally, the Siddarmarkian Republic. They were pushed back hard in Midst Toil and Tribulation and may crops were burnt in the fields. Hunger stalks the land and several large masses of homeless refugees are putting a strain on not just food stocks, but also the amount of homes available and just about every other conceivable item as well. The Charisians have a higher tech base but they're outnumbered many times over. I wonder if Mr. Weber hasn't done some reading about the Korean War, because the situation is in some ways reminiscent.
That brings up another strength of this story. Weber has very obviously spent hours and hours in research for his series. His knowledge of various subjects is used to make the story believable in ways I would not have anticipated. Fans of Weber's Honorverse will recognize the author's trademark use of naval battle, this time with a lower tech base. The suspicious part of my mind wonders if perhaps Weber didn't study land based warfare in an effort to shut those of us who wondered if he could write it up. Regardless of why he wrote it, he delivers. Weber's combat scenes are fast-paced, bloody, graphic and utterly believable. His knowledge of early industrial processes is impressive as well.
Weber, mainly through a character named Edwyrd Howsmyn, walks us through every step of the improvement in technology for both sides of the conflict. Some of it is quite frankly above my ability to evaluate for accuracy (he has done the research, I have not) but it all makes sense. He has taken the economy from being powered by wind, water and muscle to hydraulics, pneumatics and steam. It's a fascinating trip.
The characters and their motivations make sense. Merlin Athrawes is a survivor of the war that exterminated most of humanity and is out to save his species when a second round of fighting comes. Cayleb Ahrmahk is the Emperor of Charis and is fighting both to avenge the wrongs done to his people by the church and to improve the standing of both himself and his empire in the world. Maikel Staynair is a priest searching for the true meaning of his religion and steadfast in his faith. Clyntahn Zhaspar is a member of the Group of Four corrupted by power and fully commited to ending the threat to himself, his wishes and Mother Church.
For all of that, the story is not perfect. Readers may have already noticed part of the problem. The naming conventions that Weber uses can make it a bit difficult to read some of the names. This does detract from the story in a fairly significant way. He has admitted this himself in interviews, but states that it's too late to change it now. Also, much of the knowledge I mentioned earlier is presented to the audience in a series of infodumps that are frequently several pages long. The cast of characters is also quite frankly enormous and it does get a bit confusing. There is a dramatis personae at the back but that is a bit more work than I typically like. Also, this book is not by an stretch of the imagination a good place to start the series.
Safehold is a world that is rich and varied but it is not one that is easily understood this far in. I would recommend the first book in the series, also known as Safehold to just about anyone. That much being said, this is one series that it is best to read in order. The relationships between both characters and nations and the history that led to them are best absorbed one step at a time. Start this one at the beginning and you will save yourself some major confusion. All of that being said, I still really liked this book.
Bottom Line: 4 out of 5 cannonballs.
Like a Mighty Army
Tom Doherty Associates 2014
On Friday: Jeb Kinnison's Red Queen: The Substrate Wars