Cayleb Ahrmak is the head of the Charisian Empire, with his wife, Charleyan, who was formerly the Queen of Chisholm. Also in the Empire is the island of Emerald, and its ruler, Nahrman Baytes, who has become the Spymaster for the Charisian Empire. Also in the highest reaches of power is the seijin Merlin Athrawes, who is actually an android imprinted with the personality of a woman named Nimue Alban who died over 900 years ago.
Humans are on this planet because an alien race had been attacking them, conquering their planets (including Earth) and committing Genocide on them. The few humans who were left agreed to travel to a far planet, and live a life without technology so that the remaining aliens, the Gbaba, wuld pass them by. When they got to the planet, called Safehold, the humans in cold sleep deep inside the spaceships that had taken them there, were brainwashed into believing themselves just created and forgetting all about their origins on another planet. Then, most of the scientists, led by a man named Langhorne, decided to forcibly take over their society, casting themselves as benevolent angels looking out for humanity.
One of the scientists, Pei Shan-Wei, however, was completely against such blasphemy, for she foresaw that the other scientists would keep humanity unknowing and downtrodden forever. The idea had only been to hide from the Gbaba for 100-200 years, and then begin rebuilding. However, the "Bible" that Langhorne and his fellow scientists were writing made it clear that innovation was forbidden completely. Pei went to war with her fellow scientists, and both were eventually annihilated through nuclear weapons, leaving the remaining humans behind.
However, left behind in one of Pei Shan-Wei's bases was a PICA, an Android that had been gifted to a young woman in the Navy by her father, who had been rich. She'd never used it, but Pei-Shan Wei had programmed it to wake after some time, when the people of Safehold might find it in themselves to question what their "Holy Book" taught and eventually overthrow the church which had been constructed to hobble them, take their rightful place in the stars and eventually defeat the Gbaba.
But those final two goals would be a long way away. Nimue's PICA found the Kingdom of Charis, a sea-faring people who were at least somewhat open to innovation. Passing himself off as a seijin, or wandering holy man with incredible powers, he got close to the King of Charis, Haarahld, and his son, Caeleb, becoming Merlin's friend and advisor. But do to its openness to innovation, the Kingdom of Charis had attracted the attention of the church, especially the head of the Inquisitors, Zhaspar Clintahn, who made a decision to wipe the nation of Charis from the world. To do so, he convinced, with bribes and threats, the other island nations to go to war against Charis.
Unfortunately for Clintahn and the Church, Charis fought to survive and defeated its foes and their fleets at an Archipelago named Armageddon Reef. But it wasn't without cost- King Haarahld died, and many of Charis's ships were sunk, though more got away. Needless to say, Clintahn wasn't happy about the outcome, and continued to try and bring down Charis, who fought not only more attacks, but against the Church itself- who had decided to destroy them without warning. They founded their own church, the Church of Charis, and have continued to fight against their many foes to bring peace to Safehold and tear down the church, which has become riddled with corruption.
Recently, the Empire of Charis fought a war with Corisande, one of the nations who had gone to war against Charis at the Church's bidding. Its ruler, Prince Hektor, fought a long, but ultimately futile battle against Charis, his forces being overcome by Charisian weaponry and ingenuity. However, he was killed at the instigation of Clintahn, who blamed Prince Hektor's death (and his elder son's) on the Charisians, with the ultimate blame coming to rest on Emperor Cayleb and Empress Charleyan. Unfortunately, the Corisandeans swallowed this lie hook, line and sinker, and with the two remaining royals, Princess Irys and her brother Daivyn, spirited away to another court by Corisande's former Spymaster, Charus sets up a council to rule Corisande in Davyn's name until he and his sister can be returned home.
Irys, for her part, believes the lie that is being told about her father and elder brother, and hates Cayleb with all of her being. She takes refuge, along with her brother, in the Kingdom of Delferahk, under King Zhamez. There, she and her protector, Phylyp Ahzgood, make plans to get her brother's Kingdom back. Ahzgood decides to go to the Church lands, a journey that will take time, especially late in the year, as now.
Back in Corisande, the members of the Church left behind attempt to stir up Anti-Charisian sentiment against the occupying army. But Cayleb is reluctant to start killing Corisandeans out of hand, and cooler heads prevail on the Charisian side. Even more helpful are members of the Corisandean Clergy who back up the assertion that the church has grown corrupt, and speak out from the pulpit on the side of the Charisians. Some would accuse them of knowing which side their bread is buttered on, but the ones who speak out against the Church's growing corruption are all known for being honest men of great faith, not likely to be bought off by any means, and not scared of threats of death or being hurt, besides.
This is intolerable to the so-called Church Loyalists, and when they realize that people are coming to see *them* as the problem because of the sermons of those sympathetic to the Church of Charis and what it is trying to do, they decide to send a message that sympathy with the Church of Charis will not be allowed. They abduct a man named Tyman Hahskahns and bring him to the local inquisitor, who tortures him to death, then take his bleeding, broken body, and fling it on the street in front of another church whose pastor has been giving sermons that support the Charisians.
Merlin, whose small spy devices named SNARCs have been planted all across Corisande, finds out about what is happening too late to help. He, Cayleb, and the others on the inner council had been monitoring the situation in Corisande through the SNARCs and Owl, the computer in charge of the small outpost where his body had been kept. But the death of Father Tymahn is something that makes him finally move to act against the Anti-Charisian faction in Corisande's capital city, Manchyr. Using his SNARCs, he pens a message to the Corisandean Knight in charge of the Capital, Koryn Garvai, detailing a list of the conspirators, those who killed Tymahn, and maps showing where to find them all, plus the hidden rooms where Church Inquisitors have been hiding out in Manchyr- the same ones who killed Tymahn, allow him to take all of them in at once.
Meanwhile. in the Church Lands, a group of conspirators known as "The Circle", are trying to reform the church from within. However, Clintahn has discovered the existence of the Circle, and being as he is the one who is really in charge of the church, and he uses the church to go after people he sees as enemies, it's obvious he won't stand for it- and he doesn't. He lets the conspirators know that he knows, and that he will do something about it, and enjoys the fear and frenzies it creates in the members of the circle. At the same time, he sends his inquisitors to keep watch on the families of the churchmen in the Circle, preparatory to sweeping them up. Some churchmen commit suicide, while the leader of the circle prepares to be tortured for his beliefs. But his brother won't let him, and just before the hammer falls, invites him over for one final breakfast together.
When the Inquisitors knock on their door, the younger brother, who has experience in fighting, kills his own brother with a sword, and fights the Inquisitors and their troops until he, too, is killed. However, thanks to a woman who is a madam, some 200 people in the families of the Members of the Circle are able to escape the noose set by the Inquisitors, and another cleric escapes with the help of his servant and his secretary. But the church is rocked by the actions, and the clerics and members of their families are tortured until they agree to say what the church wants, and then are put to death. So are 10 Charisians who have been held and tortured by the church for months.
In the end, the Circle lies condemned out of their own mouths, and their families are killed also. Few over the age of 14 survive, and those over 5 are sent to monasteries where the conditions are brutal. Babes in arms are adopted out to other families, and with this act, Clintahn's triumph over the church is complete. No one will dare stand up to him, lest they and their families suffer the same fate. Now, he can go after the Charisian Empire with no impediments to his anger and greed. But unbeknownst to him, one of his closest associates, Robhair Ducharn, has decided to do his own part in reforming the Church, by working to help people- setting up soup kitchens and houses where they can stay instead of starving and freezing to death in the long winters.
Additional problems are in the wind for Charis, though, for now that Clintahn is supreme within the Church, there is nothing and no one to prevent him from bringing all the church's force to bear on Charis and her navy. Charis's Ships and weapons may be the most technically advanced, but it's not a large nation, and other nations have far more men to call on to build up their navies. Nor are their admirals complete fools, so when the technical gap begins closing for other countries, Charis can no longer count on easy victories.
Imperial Charis has one last hope, a weapon that completely demolishes the strictures that Safeholdians have been accustomed to these last 900 years- modern exploding shells. They haven't many of them yet, because they are hard to build, but when Clintahn uses the trials of the Circle, and the torture-confessions of Charisians to declare Holy War on the Empire of Charis, both sides will come at last to a conflict which will forever change the way that war is fought on Safehold. and may be the only way that Charis can save the world- and itself.
This book is huge, almost 700 pages, and it's a story of both sides of the war trying to build-up their armies, find and adapt to new technical advances, and for the people of the Empire of Charis, how to find enough experienced seamen to fight a war against the much larger nations going to war against her. Charis has some significant advantages- technology for one. They are developing their own while other nations are almost continually playing "catch-up", and seeing their ships blown out of the water because of the Charisian technical advantages, but with enough ships, even a technical advantage can be overcome eventually- as the Charisians learn, to their cost.
The second advantage is that Charis is a free country, where as others still cling to serfhood and even slavery. Some countries have serfs in name only, ones who can fight and own property, while others have serfs who are actually slaves, such as Harchong. Slaves, needless to say, don't fight or do anything with the enthusiasm or drive that free men do- so even though the number of foundries in Harchong is larger, for example. their lack of enthusiasm for tasks (because businesses use slaves instead of free men for the grunt work) means more mistakes, and guns that explode or shatter the second or third time they are used. These problems give Charis a time advantage in their favor as well.
In this book, the Church continues to remain its own worst enemy. The things it does rebound back on it- the murder of Tymahn Hahskahns, meant to cement support for the Church of God Awaiting, actually brings up more resentment among the church, and his murderer can't understand why. Hahskahns was a traitor to the church, after all, shouldn't people be happy he is dead?, instead of seeing that his murder turned sentiment against the church and the men who killed him. The rest of the church, back in the Church lands, also can't understand this attitude- but they no longer have to worry about those who would try and purify the church from within- Clintahn just killed that chance dead by doing an awful lot of killing in the name of the church- and it seems to have turned at least one former ally against him, though he's biding his time and will dance on Clintahn's grave when he's dead.
I really enjoy this series. it's does have a lot of "Talking head"-type stuff in it, but it builds up the characters very well and politics plays a part in the tale along with battle. The church remains evil- not just because of how it was put together (and why) but because it really doesn't care about anything but itself and retaining its primacy. And even the rulers allied with the church are beginning to see that, which means that, once again, the church is helping to dig its own grave. Even those who aren't all that politically astute can see it How much longer can the church last? Recommended.