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By Heresies Distressed    by David Weber order for
By Heresies Distressed
by David Weber
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

By Heresies Distressed is the third (following Off Armageddon Reef and By Schism Rent Asunder) in David Weber's engrossing series in which an immortal Personality-Integrated Cybernetic Avatar (PICA) named Merlin guides the survival of a colony on Safehold after the alien Gbaba had left humanity teetering on the brink of extinction. To prevent detection by the aliens, the colony was established at a primitive level and the Church of God Awaiting established to control its development and prevent innovation.

In Off Armageddon Reef, Federation Navy Lieutenant Commander Nimue Alban awakened as a PICA, tasked with steering Safehold's development. In a male form as Merlin Athrawes, he became involved in the affairs of liberal island kingdom Charis. Merlin subtly introduced innovations and assisted Charis with satellite-informed visions to aid its sea battles against Church-led annihilation. In By Schism Rent Asunder, Charis's Crown Prince Cayleb ascended the throne after his father's death, and allied with Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm - they wed and shared power in their new Empire, but also fell in love.

Now, in By Heresies Distressed, Sharleyan (who has quickly taken much of the series' limelight from Cayleb and Merlin) rules in Charis, while Cayleb goes to war on Corisande, accompanied as always by Merlin. While serious military SF fans will enjoy Cayleb's strategic victories on land as well as at sea, I was more engaged with the action back on Charis. There a plot unfolds against the crown, which would have had devastating consequences for the good guys, except for Merlin's last minute intervention. That plot - and its consequences - keeps readers' interest in a story that at times seems slow moving, stretched into a series that now goes beyond a trilogy.

Nevertheless, once launched on this absorbing series, readers soon empathize with its leads, despise its villains and their hypocrisy, and are thoroughly engaged with the evolving history - and technological advancement - of Safehold, all the while wondering if and when the Gbaba will enter the story once more. In By Heresies Distressed, Weber introduced a group 'within the church, at the very highest levels', called the Circle. He revealed their existence to Charis, but left them on a cliffhanger, about to be discovered by the Group of Four, who are also on the brink of declaring a Holy War against Cayleb's new Empire.

Along with a legion of other Weber fans, I look forward to where he takes his story - and his world - next, and to spending more time with Merlin as s(he) carefully guides his/her Safehold friends and colleagues and their fragile new Empire into the future.

Audiobook Review:

The unabridged audiobook version of By Heresies Distressed includes twenty CDs and is masterfully narrated by Jason Culp (note that the audiobook of the previous episode, By Schism Rent Asunder, was spoken by Oliver Wyman).

Just as an actor change in a movie series is disturbing to the viewer, so I find a change of audiobook narrator disconcerting. And though Jason Culp does a superb job of the elder church members (especially the corrupt Group of Four), and his range of tones and accents distinguish sex, age, and nationality of the large cast of characters very nicely, his impression of Cayleb is not as youthful as I expected. Also as in previous episodes, the audio version accentuates David Weber's frequent use of long, tangled sentences - which works better in text format, but is confusing to a listener and slows down the story.

Those quibbles aside, I find that I have a different experience with an audiobook than of the same story in a paper version. I have a bad habit of skimming over scenic descriptions on the page, but appreciate them much more through the ear. The excitement and tension of dramatic events, like the attack on young Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm, come across even more strongly to a listener than to a reader. And hearing the ongoing banter between Cayleb and Merlin, as well as between Sharleyan and her advisors, underlines all their personalities for me.

But whether you read lines on the page, or listen to the CDs, or (as I did) enjoy both, this is an excellent series and I'm very much looking forward to books and CDs of future episodes.

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