The ‘Year of Big Books’ continued this past week with Off Armageddon Reef, the first installment of David Weber’s Safehold series. Originally, the series clocked in at four volumes. Then swelled to eight. But I checked the ever-helpful FantasticFiction.com and Weber already released tome number nine with a tenth volume forthcoming in 2019. I guess you could stay the series is a bit bloated. That might be a good angle to bring into this review.
With each novel teasing on or about 600 pages, Weber’s Safehold world is massive. A literal planet, in point of fact. Give or take a millennium into the future, Earth and all her colonized planets have been wiped about by an invading alien race lured by technology. As a last ditch effort to save humanity, the last Terran fleet hides away on a remote planet—and sets up a primitive infrastructure with certain rules in place to ensure that innovation is discouraged, even illegal. Fast-forward another 800 years, and the planet Safehold is basically medieval Europe 2.0 with 16th century Man-of-War frigate ships. But wait, there’s more. A select few of the original colonists in charge of setting up the way of life—so-called Angels—also made provisions for themselves and their future heirs to the detriment of everyone else. But wait, there’s still more. Other, less sinister members of the original colonists—before they were destroyed—created a cyborg-esque superhuman with the complete memories of one of the original members. This robot, named Merlin Athrawes or Nimue Alban, depending on who you ask, decides to use his (or her) knowledge of the future to bring an industrial revolution to Safehold with the eventual hopes of staging—we think?—an assault against the original original original alien invaders.
The above summary scrapes at the surface of a succinct synopsis, but I’m in a mood to critique. I like that Weber’s world is big and complicated. However, I have a nag. My nag is this: If you’re going to do big things well, you must also do little things well. Weber skimped on the little things. Some examples:
- The religious institution on the planet of Safehold refers several times to “tithes.” To a reader unfamiliar with what exactly tithes are, the word’s relationship to a religious sect and the giving of money sounds about right. To someone (me) familiar with tithing, its use in the book is repeatedly and indisputably incorrect. The word tithe explicitly means a tenth (10%). So when a character says—“Their tithes are only twenty percent this month,”—that sentence is a non-sequitur. If it’s twenty percent, it’s not a tenth. Period. What Weber means, I gather, is “their tribute is only twenty percent this month” except that he wanted to sound ‘religious’ and no editors picked up on his error.
- The first time a character’s eyebrow “quirked” I said aloud—Nice verb! I’m definitely going to use that!—the 214th time a character’s eyebrow “quirked,” I said aloud, “URGAHHHHH!” because my face had a violent muscle spasm.
- The word-overuse alert also applies to “To speak frankly,” and “To be honest.” If a specific character possessed a penchant for reminding everyone of his honesty, the abundant use of these phrases would be appropriate (if not tolerable). When everyone, in every conversation is so utterly frank and honest about things that have little relevance as to their felicity—sigh, it’s a drag man.
- This is a kind of #3.5. I’m a stickler for characterization, so apply grains of salt where necessary: characters should be different from one another. Besides most conversations being long-winded (read: a piece of character dialogue the length my summary followed by its response which is of equal length. And repeat), the speeches didn’t excel in creating the friction necessary to promote distinct characterization. AKA, our two pals, Frank and Honest.
- There is a reasonably detailed world map on the end pages of the book. These are always helpful keeping a reader grounded in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. Except when most of the climatic action, and the respective locations that accompany it, isn’t identified on the map!
- Merlin Athrawes/Nimue Alban is basically Iron-Man dressed in synthetic skin. This isn’t a problem. I’m even willing to forgo a subtle Mary Sue Complex (look it up). What troubles me—and this is the little things cropping up once more—is that we’re approximately in the year 4,000, okay? And you’re telling me (spoiler alert), that Merlin has been carrying a vibrating pager around all these years!? I cannot think of a think person I know who owns one right now. This book was published in 2007 and they were long out of fashion by then. So…?
In closing, I underscore my aforementioned claim to say that I like big worlds, but, as an author, do the little things right first. Otherwise you will receive benedictions like this one: Needs a little more polish and a little less prose. The Year of Big Books will press on, but not with another Safehold novel. 2/5 stars.