Safehold series by David Weber
(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 50, Jan 2009)
Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber
Tor, 2007, 789 pages
By Schism Rent Asunder by David Weber
Tor, 2008, 511 pages
Four centuries in the future, mankind has spread to the stars, forming the Terran Federation. However, mankind is soon faced with its greatest challenge in the form of the alien Gbaba who are intent on wiping out all mankind with no remorse at all. It is not long before the Gbaba focus in on Earth itself, the last planet left of the Terran Federation. The Terrans know they cannot stand up to the might of the Gbaba, as they’ve watched one planet after another destroyed and utterly annihilated by the Gbaba’s strength. With their death imminent, the humans of Earth devise one last attempt to save mankind. A fleet of Terran ships takes off from Earth on the eve of Earth’s destruction. Part of that fleet is a decoy to distract the Gbaba from the rest of the fleet whose objective is to escape unnoticed and establish a colony elsewhere, far from the Gbaba’s notice.
This desperate act to save the human race works and a planet is soon found for the eight million colonists who are in hibernation. However, since it was technology that attracted the Gbaba to the Terran Federation, the founders of the colony determine that they must wipe the minds of all the colonists and set up the new world in such a way that technology will never rise above the level of Renaissance-era Earth. However, there is soon a division between the founders with the winning group setting itself up as godlike ‘archangels’ and establishing a religion that will not only restrict the technology but also hamper the growth of the colony in many ways.
Fast forward nearly a millennium. The colony of Safehold has prospered well since its founding, but the Church of God Awaiting has exerted a stranglehold on the people of Safehold, subjecting the people to its will. Little do they know, though, that the losing division in the war of the founders had a backup plan. Under a mountain lies a bunker that contains an android avatar that holds the personality of Nimue Alba, one of the last humans to die at the hands of the Gbaba. Nimue’s avatar runs on such low power that the Gbaba would never discover it. Nimue is shocked by what she finds and using her nearly superhuman powers, she sets out to help the humans beat off the yoke of the oppressive church and work toward freedom. She modifies her avatar to become Merlin Anthrawes, a seijin of Safeholdian legend, a combination of holy warrior and superman.
As Merlin, Nimue works her way into the confidence of the king of the Safeholdian kingdom of Charis, Haarahld Ahrmahk. Merlin soon shows the Charisians a few ways to improve the rudimentary technology of their weapons in order to give them the technological edge over their neighbors. The Charisians don’t have any intentions of world domination; they just want to have freedom from the oppressive religious leaders and their Inquisition. However, the Church will have none of that and begins a war against Charis, the results of which will have long lasting ramifications for all of Safehold.
The second book of the series, By Schism Rent Asunder, picks up almost immediately after the ending of Off Armageddon Reef. Haarahld’s son Cayleb is now on the throne of Charis. Charis may have won the great battle at the end of the previous book, but that is just the beginning of the problems that Charis faces as it finds itself against the rest of the world of Safehold. However, the other Safeholdian kingdoms and nations have seen a tiny bit of the freedom that Charis is fighting for and they also begin to see just how manipulative the Church has become, controlling the wills of its people. Soon there is a division between those who will follow the Church and those who want to fight for personal freedom and autonomy. Sides are drawn up and allegiances struck. The novel ends very much in media res as Cayleb and his forces are about to head out to war against the Church.
The concept of this series is a very clever one, allowing Weber to play with the best fantasy tropes in an SFnal world. One of the complaints that some readers have with fantasy is its penchant for medieval worlds (a result of the ur-fantasy novel Lord of the Rings being set in such a world). Weber cleverly constructs a world wherein there is a reason for this level of technology while still having an SFnal background to the series. It is an almost perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy.
This is a story told on an epic scale—in the back of the second volume there is a ten-page character list—but Weber has the skill to create realistic characters in just a few pages. Oddly enough, the least developed character is his main character, Merlin/Nimue, who keeps himself/herself aloof from the characters and thus we learn about her only mostly through interior monologues. Still, there are enough other characters of depth to keep the reader busy keeping track of everyone.
I have no idea how long this series is projected to go. Weber could take it all the way to a final battle with the Gbaba, or he could end it sooner, but either way, I’m anxious to see how it ends up. Weber has given us what could be a quite memorable series that has the epic scale of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire without the relentless, depressing plot that marks that series.