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4.0 out of 5 stars Nimue Alban/Safehold VI: the land war hots up, 28 Oct 2012
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This review is from: Midst Toil and Tribulation (Safehold) (Hardcover)
In this sixth installment in the "Safehold" series in which the major character is Nimue Alban, it starts to become clear how the good guys may eventually have a chance to win control of the planet, but they are far from having an easy time of it.

Some people love this series and others hate it. If you read this author for his high-tech space battles, such as those in the Honor Harrington universe which kicks off with "On Basilisk Station (Honorverse)" you should probably leave the "Safehold" series alone.

A good test for whether you will like the "Safehold" series: if you play computer games or board games, the likelihood that you will enjoy this series is directly proportional to the pleasure you get from playing Sid Meier's Civilisation (link: Sid Meier's Civilization V) or similar games. The heroine of this series is doing exactly what the successful Civ player has to do: shepherd a nation surrounded by enemies one step at a time from a pre-industrial era with muscle-powered weapons and units such as swordsmen and galleys through increasingly advanced periods of history and up to the space age while balancing the competing demands of defence against hostile powers, economic development, and scientific research, and juggling politics, culture and religion.

Like previous novels in the series this is another massive doorstop of a book, with five pages of maps and 536 pages of story followed by another 50 pages or so of appendices (character index, glossary etc.) But I found the editing tighter than some previous installments, and you have more of a sense that the author knows where he is going with the story, despite the fact that the war between the good guys and the evil "Temple" seemed to be facing a complete stalemate at the end of book four.

If you're going to read this series, don't begin with this book: start at the beginning and work through in order. The seven "Nimue Alban"/Safehold books published to date are:

1) Off Armageddon Reef
2) By Schism Rent Asunder
3) By Heresies Distressed
4) A Mighty Fortress (Safehold 4)
5) How Firm a Foundation (Safehold)
6) This book, "Midst Toil and Tribulation"
7) "Like a Mighty Army (Safehold)"

Not all the ideas are new: the story is a re-working of concepts from Weber's earlier books, particularly the Dahak trilogy which consists of "Mutineer's Moon," "The Armageddon Inheritance" and "Heirs Of Empire" - the whole trilogy has also been published as "Empire from the Ashes". But IMHO in the Safehold novels Weber re-uses many of the same basic ideas more effectively and with some original twists.

For example, the alien attackers who are at war against humanity at the start of the first book, and the threat of whom hangs over subsequent books, will remind many Weber fans of the Kangas from "The Apocalypse Troll" and even more of the Achuultani from the "Dahak" trilogy. The anti-technological church which the heroes and heroines are struggling against throughout the first seven books bears a striking resemblance to the church on Pardal in "Heirs of Empire," the third book in the Dahak trilogy. But in both cases the presentation of those ideas is better done.

None of the statements in this review are spoilers for "Midst Toil and Tribulation" but the following comments about the setting of this sixth book may infer more than you want to know about the outcomes of the first five books if you have not read them yet. If that is the case I suggest you navigate to the page for "Off Armageddon Reef" or the first book you have not yet read (see links above) without reading further.

The basic idea for the series begins in the 25th century, when humanity finds evidence that other intelligent races have recently existed on nearby stars but that a xenophobic alien race is exterminating them. The Terran Federation has just enough warning to make a fight of it when that enemy, the Gbaba, finds us and attacks ten years later. The war lasts fifty years - but at the end of that time it is obvious that humanity is losing.

Operation Ark, a final desperate attempt to plant a colony thousands of light years away from the area patrolled by the enemy, is launched. If they succeed, the colonists will face a choice: try to build a civilisation powerful enough to defeat the Gbaba, or abandon any technology which might attract their attentions and simply hide.

The anti-technological faction in the leadership of the new colony win, and set up a totalitarian theocracy whose main aim is to stifle any technical change. For eight hundred years nobody on the planet knew that it was a colony, that humanity has a deadly enemy out among the stars, or that the real reason for the ban on technology was not God's command but to avoid attracting the attention of that enemy.

However, eight hundred years after the founding of Safehold, a cyborg was activated with the mind and memories of Lieutenant-Commander Nimue Alban, a brilliant tactician who had been one of the thousands of people who gave their lives that the colony fleet could get through. When the corrupt leaders of the church attempted to destroy the nation of Charis for being too innovative, Nimue adopted the persona of "Merlin Athrawes" a warrior mystic, and helped them to defeat the initial church invasion.

At the start of the fifth book, through a mixture of war and brilliant diplomacy Cayleb, the young King of Charis, had with Merlin's assistance created and consolidated an empire comprising most of the maritime island nations in the part of Safehold around his original kingdom. As Charis controls the islands and the seas, while the corrupt leaders of the Temple dominate the main landmass, we appeared to have the same sort of stalemate as when the Royal Navy of Nelson's time dominated the seas while Napoleon's Army dominated the land.

But then during the fifth book the villain of the series, Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn, attempted to overthrow the government of the Republic of Siddarmark on the main landmass. Beset by "Temple Loyalist" rebels and facing huge invading forces of the Temple's so-called "Army of God" the position of those loyal to the Republic of Siddarmark looks very difficult. But if Charis can help them hold on, a foothold for the good guys in Siddarhark will provide them with an invasion route to the Temple itself. This book describes the first year's desperate campaigning in the massive land war which follows.

If you are only interested in getting back to the space battles, you may agree with the other reviewer who referred to this book as "filler." If however you have any interest in land warfare between the 16th and 19th centuries, and what happened when different military technologies clashed, you may find it fascinating. By this stage of the story the good guys are getting their forces trained and equipped with tactics and weapons which roughly correspond to those of the American Civil War while the "Church of God Awaiting" has, with the aid of captured and stolen Charisian designs, equipped their forces to roughly the technological level of the Napoleonic era.

The "Army of God" does not necessarily have the tactics to use those weapons to good effect but they have managed to appoint and promote much more competent officers than in some of the early books in the series and they have the advantage of overwhelming numbers - and as Merlin quotes from a statement made in a 20th century war, "Quantity has a quality all of its' own."

The author's depiction of how these different armies, and those of Siddarmark, might interact is described in a way which is mostly exciting, plausible, and with one glaring exception clearly described.

I did, however, have one major issue with the way an important plot element in the story is badly described. At the climax of the book the Charisians launch a daring raid which has to travel thousands of miles through the territory which the "Army of God" has captured. Weber makes clear from the outset that there is a tactic which the enemy could use, if they react in time, to stop the attack cold and strand the raiders hundreds of miles from safety. He keeps the reader in suspense until almost the end of the book about what the primary mission of the raid is, but he does explain from the word go that the raid is a gamble because the plan has, quote "a major achilles heel."

What I am about to write is not a spoiler because the book states clearly when the launch of the raid is described what that achilles heel is, namely that it could be stopped cold by destroying the locks on the canal system in the area the enemy has occupied.

To explain fully why the passages referring to locks are confusing might "spoil" the ending of the book. So I'll have to try to say what isn't clear enough in the first few references to locks without mention of the later passages which might give the ending away.

Take this as a warning: if you find what I have written here annoyingly unclear and Delphic, I apologise, but that's exactly how I found the fact that Dave Weber does not explain specifically enough what the Charisian raiders do to the locks. From the point where the raid is first proposed Merlin warns of the danger that the enemy could block it and strand the raiding force by destroying the lock gates in the canal systems in the territory they control, yet one of the first things that raiding force does is start destroying lock gates behind them. The distinction between what Merlin is afraid the bad guys might do to the canal locks and what the good guys do to them is not well described.

I had to read the last hundred pages four times before I understood what is happening, despite having the advantage that some readers will not have that I have skippered a boat through a hundred miles of canal including half a dozen lock systems. It is possible that as someone who has used locks but never tried to blow one up, I was suffering from the same mindset as the bad guys in the book!

On my first two readings of the book, the raid seemed to be an engineering impossibility. However, on further reflection, the thought occurred that there might be a way for the raiders to partially sabotage the locks without stranding themselves hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. So I reread the last part of the book twice more. On the fourth reading I found one word which to someone with a good working knowledge of locks explains how the raiders are largely, but not quite completely, destroying the locks behind them so as not to strand themselves.

To anyone who has read the book and is wondering which word I'm referring to, it is the word "downstream" on page 516 of the hardback edition, when the raid commander refers to the destruction of "both sides of both sets of the downstream locks" including "both sets of gates." On the previous page we are told that the town where the raiders are destroying enemy supplies and infrastructure had a pair of two stage lock systems. If you are well read about locks, or like me have actually used them, you will know that a TWO-stage lock system would have THREE sets of gates. So the reference to TWO sets of DOWNSTREAM lock gates is the clue that the raiders are wrecking the two lower sets of gates on each lock system after their own waterborne transportation has passed through the whole system but - and this is what Weber should have explained - leaving the UPPERMOST sets of gates intact.

When you realise that the raiders are destroying the lower lock gates after passing through a lock system which takes them to a higher water level, but leaving the highest set of gates intact, thus making the lock impassable to waterborne traffic without draining all the water from the upper stretch of the canal, the story works. There will probably be readers cleverer than me who didn't take four readings to understand it. But I defy anyone who isn't a demolition expert or a lock engineer to follow what is going on at one reading.

Black mark to Weber for not explaining this as clearly as he usually does, and triple black mark to his editor for not picking up that those readers who like to actually understand what is going on rather than just enjoy the excitement would find this part of the book very difficult to follow.

That was my one big problem with this book. The rest of it I greatly enjoyed.

This book will still probably, like the previous one "A Mighty Fortress" or "Storm from the Shadows" in the author's "Honor Harrington" universe, be one of the books which a significant part of the author's fanbase hate because there are not enough space or high tech battles. But I think most of those who have enjoyed the previous books in this series will enjoy it.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 15 Feb 2014 20:21:00 GMT
No wonder you enjoyed such a wordy dull and overlong book by creating its equal in a review...what guff....

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Feb 2014 22:27:47 GMT
Last edited by the author on 16 Feb 2014 22:29:23 GMT
If you have something constructive to say, why not give Amazon readers the benefit of your thoughts by writing a few reviews yourself?
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