What I'm finding I like about Legend of the Galactic Heroes is how its cover story of two civilizations at war is merely a front for a more interesting story about two personalities in conflict: The Man Who Would Be King, versus The Man Who Was Too Lazy To Fail. Yang Wen-Li and Reinhardt von Lohengramm, are the — sorry, had to say it — yang and yin of this hugely influential saga, painted both as products of their respective worlds and as driving forces within them. From the beginning of this saga, Yoshiki Tanaka capitalized on the tension that existed between the two main characters, their societies, and the powers they commanded. Now those two have to deal with a new kind of struggle, one that arises when the men they are be comes into conflict with the men they wanted to be.
From space war to civil war
The first Heroes book set the stage — a galactic empire versus its upstart rebels — and sketched the two men of war on either side of the conflict — Yang on the rebel side, Reinhardt on the imperial side. Now that the two have clashed by way of their armies, they are now faced with new problems from within each of their respective worlds. In Yang's case, it's a coup d'état (the "Military Congress for the Rescue of the Republic") fomented by Reinhardt, but led by Admiral Dwight Greenhill, a once-trusted comrade. Reinhardt faces a growing schism between the military and the aristocracy, and must manage both the coup d'état at arm's length and retake power from the aristocrats.
On the level of straight-up plotting, those who read and enjoyed the first volume of Heroes won't be let down. There's slightly less emphasis this time around on Horatio Hornblower-style military adventure, the stock-in-trade flavor of space opera, and more about the internal turmoil that roils both societies. Greenhill's coup fails, both because it instigates a massacre of protesters — shades of Tienanmen Square, although this was written years earlier — and because Yang uses some clever tactics to destroy a planetary defense system around Heinessen, the world that's the source of the coup. (He basically throws icebergs at it.)
It's the motives behind Yang's actions that are crucial, not simply the plans themselves. He'd rather leave Heinessen unprotected than allow the people on it to be held hostage. But he also attacks the leaders of the coup with psyops, by allowing one of their own disgruntled comrades to publicly pin the blame for the whole thing on Reinhardt — even when Yang doesn't have direct evidence of this himself. The better he gets at war, the more uneasy he becomes with his original goal of just getting good enough at it to retire. Would another man in his position been as wise to try and spare all those living on Heinessen, or just consider it collateral damage?
Tanaka also provides the same kind of nuance and attention to psychological detail to Reinhardt. His own struggles are fascinating to watch, in big part because the story's deck is stacked to favor him over the aristocracy. Reinhardt has worked to earn the power and the glory he has; the others were just lucky enough to have been born into it. But Reinhardt also gains points with us through his relationship with his childhood friend and now advisor, Kircheis. Late in the story, Reinhardt chooses to allow millions to die so that his rivals will be unmasked all the more as being heartless, but realizes only too late that Kircheis might well have been able to talk him out of it, and that he is all the poorer for having ignored the other man's advice. Doubly so after tragedy comes between the two of them, and Reinhardt finds himself becoming all the more drawn to new struggles as a way to prove his value to himself.
Most of the reviews and discussion around Galactic Heroes draw parallels between it and Tolstoy's War and Peace [and also the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I haven't yet read — ed.], and while the comparison is valid I often feel it's drawn for the wrong reasons. Tolstoy's novel was not great because of its philosophy (try and get through the last chapter without feeling unnecessarily preached to), or even specifically because of its grand historical sweep. It holds up because it provides a sense of what it felt like to be in a particular social class, or in the shoes of many different particular people, on one side of the War of 1812. We see not just through one set of eyes, but many, in all directions. If Galactic Heroes cannot go quite as far as Tolstoy's epic, it makes a determined attempt to go at least as wide.