The Safehold Series

-David Weber


One of the things I have grown to detest, over the last few years, is endless series where each book is really nothing more than an oversized chapter.  The problems with this format are endless.  The readers are kept on hooks, unable to see an endlessly deferred resolution; lots of things happen, but very little actually changes.  If something happens to the author, the series will never be completed.  Wheel of Time, for example, was not completed by its original writer.  This tends to annoy readers when they splash down their hard-earned cash for a hardback, only to discover that the overall storyline has barely advanced.


Indeed, one of the reasons I like David Weber’s Honour Harrington series so much is that it largely escapes that problem - each of the pre-Storm From The Shadows novels were largely stand-alone, even as the universe itself expanded.  Even Echoes of Honour, which followed on directly from In Enemy Hands, was still reasonably stand-alone.  There is an overall story arc, but each book focuses on a different problem for the heroes. 


The Safehold series - nine books in all - is a single very long novel.  I decided, after reading A Mighty Fortress, that I would stop reading the series until the last book in the series was published.  And, with the launch of At The Sign of Triumph, (a break point, if not an ending) I purchased paperback copies of all remaining books - and an eBook of the last book.  And then I sat down to binge-read.


The basic plot is simple enough.  Humanity got into a war with an overpowering - and genocidal - alien foe.  Victory is impossible.  Accordingly, a colony ship is dispatched to a world called Safehold, the last bastion of mankind.  In order to hide, the colonists are mind-wiped and given a social matrix designed to prevent the re-emergence of technology.  In theory, this matrix isn't designed to last forever; in practice, some of the planners have warped the system with the intent on preventing technology from ever reappearing.  The religion they created - a combination of the worst of both Christianity and Islam - won't allow it.  Safehold is permanently trapped at roughly the same level, technologically speaking, as Philip II and the Spanish Amanda.  (And anyone who does develop modern technology will be blasted by an automated orbital bombardment system.)


Luckily, some rebellious planners suspected the worst.  A PICA - an android body - was loaded with the brain patterns of one of their number (a young female starship officer), then hidden well away from probing sensors.  Now, nine hundred years after their deaths, that android - Nimue/Merlin - has returned to life with a single goal - overthrow Mother Church and promote the development of technology, once again.  (If you’re a Weber fan, you’ll note that this has some things in common with an earlier stamping ground - Heirs of Empire.) 


Allaying himself (Merlin is effectively a transgender, although the point isn't really made) with an island kingdom and its young prince (later a king), Merlin kicks off a war against the forces of Mother Church that - by the time it ends - will utterly reshape Safehold once and for all.


There is a lot I liked about this series.  Weber is at his best when exploring the implications of such a vast world war - and it is on a 1914-style scale - and its impact on ordinary people, from the highest to the lowest.  Weber doesn't shy away from showing the full horror of holy war, nor - on a better level - how technology can improve life on a daily basis.  He also dives into politics of a style most of us know little about, the endless power struggles between the Vatican and the various European kingdoms of the Middle Ages.  And, for that matter, the kind of barbaric/bureaucratic mindset that promotes atrocity on a daily basis.


Weber does not lose sight, in many ways, of the simple fact that most of his bad guys are bad, yet they’re bad with reason.  From raging fanatics to men who feel threatened or displaced, Weber makes them human.  Indeed, although the ‘archangels’ (the original planners) are very much the villains of the novels (and largely unseen, save in flashbacks), they have motives for their madness.  And they may even be right, a point quietly acknowledged by some of the good guys. 


Nor, for that matter, does Weber lose sight of the complexities of war.  Logistics, weapons development ... and communications.  Getting messages from place to place without radio was a nightmare - all the more so in this story, where the good guys have access to advanced technology they cannot risk sharing.  Bad things happen, at least in part, because the greatest secrets must not be shared.  Some may say Weber puts too much detail into his books - particularly here - but the series is one that will reward re-readers (and war gamers).


But the series has two major weaknesses that must be acknowledged.  First, it starts to drag after book three (which is why I decided not to read any further until it was finished.)  There are too many characters, all of whom consume more and more words - and this comes at the expense of the action.  In real life, of course, time does have to pass before matters can continue, but these are points that can be skipped over with a couple of lines.  Ironically, this problem is reversed in the final book - matters speed up remarkably and points which deserve some examination are skipped over. 


Second ... the good guys have too many advantages.  Yes, there’s an orbital bombardment system capable of blasting anything stupid enough to radiate an electronic signature.  But it doesn't seem a very sensitive device.  Merlin has access to literally millions of tiny bugs that he can use to spy on everyone, at least everyone outside the Temple itself.  He can monitor practically everyone of interest to a degree that would make Big Brother wet his pants.  No one outside the inner circle has any idea they exist.  And this gives him a grossly unfair advantage.  A serious attempted uprising/coup in the final book is quashed with ease, because the good guys know about the plans almost as soon as they are made.  There’s very little room for actual surprise ... and when it does happen, Weber has to twist himself into knots to make it plausible.


Merlin himself is another problem along the same lines.  He’s an utterly indestructible android, at least by anything his enemies can throw at him.  He’s unstoppable, effectively immortal (at least as long as he doesn't piss off the orbital bombardment system) ... if worst comes to worst, he can just go back into hiding for a few hundred years and start again.  I never really had the sense the good guys could lose.


In some ways, I think the story would have been more interesting if Nimue had remained human and female.  It would have been a trickier time for her - Safehold being a deeply patriarchal culture - and she would have been more vulnerable.  (And this would have been true, even if she had either played Sweet Polly Oliver or literally changed sex.)  Or, for that matter, if she didn’t have so much technology at her disposal. 


Or, perhaps, if the bad guys had some tech of their own.  There were some items of advanced tech held by the bad guys, but nothing particularly significant.  What if they’d had a stockpile of advanced weapons - maybe WW1 level - or even technical manuals they could use, giving them an advantage of their own?  They spend most of the books playing catch-up - and fighting their own social matrix - while their enemies effortlessly move ahead by leaps and bounds.  (I’m still irked that they didn’t find out just what is hidden under the temple by the end of the series.)


Overall, despite these problems, the Safehold series is a fun read and I enjoyed it.