David Weber’s Like a Mighty Army, the latest installment in his Safehold series, came out ten days ago, and I have spent most of my free time buried up to the eyebrows in the battle to dig humanity out of medieval oppression.
I reviewed the earlier Safehold novels this summer, and I went into some depth about the strengths and weaknesses of the series as a whole. Those remarks are still around if you want to get caught up on my take of Weber’s ongoing military sci-fi series. To save time and repetition I will try and focus about the novel without retreading a lot of old ground.
Like a Mighty Army is heavy on fan service and plot development, and weaker in writing craft compared to Weber’s other works. Weber is greatly popular among the technically-minded science fiction community. Half of the Weber fans I know have hard science degrees and I was a Physics major in my misspent youth. So Weber’s talk about alloy tolerances, ironclad naval ships, and technological innovation is a rare and well-researched treat. There is a fair amount of engineering fan service in this novel, but most of it was relevant and not overdone.
I wish the same could be said about the rest of the novel. Weber gives a lot of plot development. There is a royal wedding planned, immense armies clash, and the relationships among long-standing characters develop. If I were to go full-on spoiler and sum up those developments, I would be the first to admit that what happens is awesome.
How it happens is lamentable. Like a Mighty Army has almost all the elements needed to make a great story, and drops the ball every time but once. The greatest failure is in basic story structure. There is no antagonist in this piece. An evil leader has a temper tantrum, but he poses no threat to a single major character, much less the fate of the world. The enemy commander is an incompetent moron who could not possibly win his battle. There is still no one with the power or ability to even face off against Merlin.
So we have a long, meandering story where none of the primary heroes faces a single major threat, none of them are directly involved in any of the victories, and none of them make a critical decision to change the plot. Like a mighty glacier the inevitable military victory of the Charisians plods forward.
David Weber’s writing craft has produced worse than Like a Mighty Army (The Hell’s Gate series with Linda Evans is bloated useless schlock that unfortunately has to be read to believe how little can happen in a pair of 800-page paperbacks) but it is as if Weber deliberately wants to spit in the eye of writing basics.
Show, don’t tell. The aphorism is true, but impossible. Weber has his main characters removed from the critical action and even the critical decisions. The action constantly follows the same pattern, which is a literary felony if ever there was one. The formula goes as follows: Weber introduces a genuine military problem, whether it is on land or at sea. A mid-level character has to take some critical action with the fate of the world resting in part on his shoulders. No sooner does he find the way forward, and the battle begins… And suddenly after the second or third shot of battle is fired we cut away to sit with the main characters who talk about what happened over evening tea a thousand miles away. So Like A Mighty Army baits-and-switches its way through a pair of genuinely interesting theaters of war. Did I mention that the tea-time summary of each battle takes longer than the build-up to the battle, much less the battle that we have skipped?
Mr. Webber, you got the funding to write your soap opera of noble chums because of the battle scenes and the world problem you introduced. You write military fiction. Gone With The Wind is not military fiction, it is romance that happens to take place in the war. You need a bad guy who can threaten even one of your mid-level characters, any one of whom would slap Jasper Clinton (I refuse to acknowledge the crime against orthography that you have committed) into the middle of next week with his eyes closed. You put a lot of story down. But you’re missing the following elements that a first year writings student knows about:
You have no bad guy worth talking about. You were lazy and self-indulgent enough to write a super-hero super-human Merlin who can’t be out-fought, out-thought, or out-maneuvered. He doesn’t even have a personality flaw to create a decent inner struggle, because while man-versus-himself conflict is the weakest of the three conflict stories (after man-versus-man and man-versus-nature), it would at least have… drama. Whatever Merlin sets out to do will be done, which is getting boring beyond all belief. You have even thrown away half the things I respected in the character when your “last Christian alive” doesn’t even blink having gender-bending sex with multiple partners. Forget questions of gender identity which different branches of Christianity might agree on, you couldn’t even manage to fit monogamy into your hero’s personality, and you think the fact that he unrepentantly talks about God sometimes cuts it with your largely Christian fan-base? The big-reveal threat from last book, the one you left a cliffhanger on, did not even appear in this long novel! WHY?
You have no main characters to move the action. Your first novel had royals doing what royals did: leading the military from the front. You spend so much time whimpering about assassination attempts, but you neglect the fact that it’s darn hard to assassinate a prince surrounded by a brigade of fiercely loyal troops. A quick skim of Roman history could tell you that much.
You have no dramatic or technical climax. The dramatic climax, Shakespeare Act Three, is when the critical decision gets made that shapes the rest of the story to a critical moment, the technical climax in Shakespeare Act Five, when the hero mans up, pulls the critical action, and resolves the story. Of course, you would have had to expend the mental horsepower to come up with a crisis, wouldn’t you? You have grown fat and lazy on your own reputation, and I finished the novel with a passion to outdo you. I feel let down and betrayed. It is not a coincidence that the language of writing theory intermixes with sexual imagery. Mr. Weber, you had your cookies but I didn’t even breathe heavy as I read, to say nothing of satisfaction. You are an entertainer, sir. You purport to make your living selling satisfaction to your clients, preferably in a way that makes them want more an hour later. You had better if you plan such achingly long series!
If you have invested the countless hours to get this far in Safehold’s history, there is enough to keep going with, but it is coasting off of momentum of previous books, mostly books one and three in the series, honestly. Mr. Weber, it has been a while since I closed a book with enough anger to want to sit down and type until I leave someone in the dust, but you have energized me to write all the more. If I have to write in a closet while working three jobs I will dust the rust off of Saint Gavin’s Ghost and have it out for sale by this time next year, just because you deserve a literary rebuttal for asking me to pay for this pathetic tripe. You used to write this genre in standalone settings. Remember The Excalibur Alternative?
As a reader and Weber fan, (and there are at least fifteen of his books on my shelves, several of them replacements for books I have loaned out or read to pieces) I will say that there is just enough in Like A Mighty Army to make it worth reading, used, or on Kindle. This novel will not be the last David Weber book I ever read. But unless a certain talented writer gets off his butt and ups his game, gets back to basic writing craft, it is almost certainly the second to last. Man up or give the rights to a writer who is hungry enough to do the work. Or delay it until someone pulls a Robert Jordan and finishes your stories for your estate!
[Bonus rant post script:]
While I’m venting, Mr. Weber, you ordained minister, why don’t you man up about your faith? You want to write a nominally Christian character? What sort of Christian would sit silent in a world full of people worshiping false idols and stay silent about their faith? “Oh, hey, I know that there are a billion or so people living and dying without ever hearing about Jesus, but I have to go make ironclads and stress about steam power while I send them off to war. I won’t even tell the people I love about Jesus because, honestly, what’s the point in that? If you’re shot and die at war, I’m sort of hopeful that you won’t go to hell, and it is the thought that counts, right?” It’s just God’s Great Commission!?! I mean, if you did that you could have genuinely faithful people seeking their own path and good, providing some internal conflict for your heroes, like the Graysons did in the Honor Harrington series, the best and coolest society you have ever come up with! Wait, why emulate success? What a shock it would be if you wrote a Judeo-Christian character who had even heard of the Ten Commandments!? They did mention that at Seminary, right? I mean, I don’t expect you to write Christian fiction, but if you are going to write about Christian characters… there is this teeny little tradition we have called missionary work. It started with these eleven apostles hiding in a back room one Pentacost…
Writers like you are why I got into fiction in the first place, because somebody had to write good science fiction and fantasy that remembered God as something other than a foot note to go with “Blond hair, and prefers blue and gray clothing.”