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Nimue Alban/Safehold five: Weber is getting back on form,
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This review is from: How Firm a Foundation (Safehold 5) (Hardcover)
This is the fifth installment in the "Safehold" series in which the major character is Nimue Alban. Not all of the author's fanbase will like it - there is very little here for the people who like high-tech space battles for instance - but I thought it was a big improvement on volume four and as with the previous books in the series I could hardly put it down.
Again, like most of the previous novels in this series it's another massive doorstop of a book, with five pages of maps and 550 pages of story followed by another 50 pages or so of appendices (character index, glossary etc.) But I found the editing quite a bit tighter than the last installment, 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 five "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) This book, How Firm a Foundation, and
6) "Midst Toil and Tribulation (Safehold)."
Not all the ideas are new: the story is a re-working of concepts from Weber's earlier books, particularly the Dahak trilogy "Mutineer's Moon," "The Armageddon Inheritance" and "Heirs Of Empire (Dahak series)" - the whole trilogy has also been published as "Empire from the Ashes". But IMHO Weber uses the experience he has gained in the meantime to re-use 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 four 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 "How firm a foundation" but the following comments about the setting of this fifth book may infer more than you want to know about the outcomes of the first four 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 is that in the 25th century, 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 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 outside 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 attackers, 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 to avoid attracting the attention of that enemy.
But 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 a bit too innovative, as a warning to others, Nimue adopted the persona of "Merlin Athrawes" a warrior mystic, and helped them to defeat the initial church invasion.
At the start of this fifth book, through a mixture of war and brilliant diplomacy Cayleb, the young King of Charis, has 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 appear 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 this book describes how that stalemate began to break ...
It starts with the central character setting up a fake steam railway network on an uninhabited island. Nimue wants to find out whether the creators of the anti-technological church which dominates the planet Safehold left any orbital sensors or weapons platforms designed to destroy such a manifestation of forbidden technology.
From this we are taken to "Onedin Line" territory as some of Weber's supporting characters are trying to keep a galleon afloat and unwrecked during a terrible storm at sea.
And then we are back to political manouvering, espionage, and church-sponsored terrorism as Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn continues his effort to crush the good guys and anyone else who opposes him.
If you have become very attached to and interested in the characters built up over the previous books, and the world which Weber has built for them, you may enjoy this as much as I did. If, however, you are one of the many readers who enjoy David Weber's books mainly for space battles, this, like the last one, is a book to miss.
There is only one major naval battle described in detail in this book, and DW doesn't pretend that the outcome is in any doubt - but that doesn't mean there is no tension in the book. Dave Weber's style puts you looking over the shoulder of good guys and bad guys alike as the latter are planning various horrible arocities and Weber leaves you in considerable doubt which of them will be succesfully carried out, and whether the good guys will be able to rescue any of the innocents who the Inquisition is planning to murder.
At this point in the series, the technology with which the good guys have equipped their navy appears roughly comparable to the early nineteenth century, while the bad guys have broughts themselves up to about the mid-seventeenth century. The technology of naval combat at these times is well described and I found it interesting.
Weber appears to have listened to complaints about some of his recent books, and far less of the book is taken up with detailed descripions of interminable conference calls between the major characters. (I spend enough time on conference calls at work, I don't want masses more of them when reading for pleasure!)
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 battles. But I think those who have enjoyed most of this series will like this book a lot.