Published by Tor
Author Web site: www.davidweber.net
This review contains spoilers for previous installments of the Safehold saga.
Humanity continues its long struggle back from the depths of near extinction in How Firm a Foundation, the fifth book in David Weber’s epic Safehold saga. For much of the populace of Safehold, the fact that they have been hiding from an alien threat that had them at near extinction (let alone that Earth is their true home world) is an unknown factor, save for a select few including Emperor and Empress of Charis (Caleyb and Sharleyan, respectively) and their trusted advisor Merlin Athrawes (who is actually an avatar of the long deceased officer of the old Earth space navy, Nimue Alban).
The conflict between the Empire of Charis and the Church of God continues, events escalate to terrorist acts and public executions. Upon the opening of the novel, the Charisan Navy is a power that seems to have no equal, which is a feat considering how small the Empire is compared to the lands held under the sway of the Church of Four. Of course Charis has a little help with more advanced technology, relatively speaking, thanks to Merlin’s help. How Firm a Foundation features a great many sea battles between Charis and the Church’s power which highlight both the power of Charis and the growing strength of its enemies.
One of the undercurrents throughout the series has been the cautious development of technology due in large part because the Gbaba, the enemies who nearly exterminated humanity, are able to detect when any civilization reaches a certain technological level. While this point has informed the background and the “why” of humanity’s current situation, it has just been that – a background item. Well, here in How Firm a Foundation, Merlin discovers something in a distant part of the world that could be seen as a dampener to the evolving technology of the Charisan empire and the future fate of the ‘archangels’ who set the current society on its rather stagnant state of development. What this did, in my mind, was put something of an endgame to the situation. A warning was made that something would happen in approximately 1,000 years which gives Weber a bottom line to meet, a head at where the conflict will arrive. This is a welcome development to a long-running series.
As I said, Naval battles take up a larger portion of the novel, but where I found the strength of the narrative was in the character clashes and ideological clashes between the Church of God Awaiting and the Church of Charis. Clyntahn’s stronghold as the leader of the Group of Four (the ruling power of the Church of God Awaiting and the current Big Bad of the series), is beginning to show cracks. Despite his companions’ similar beliefs, even they are beginning to see that his extremist measures are growing more difficult to accept and digest. As a result, more people (and as a result, their nations) are willing to listen to what Cayleb and his representatives have to say about the nature of their beliefs and with whom they should be aligning themselves.
In the end, I’d sum up How Firm a Foundation, and Safehold in general a few ways. There are stories where you realize they aren’t perfect and you can enjoy the story/novel despite those flaws because the brilliant outshines the dull in a large percentage. Maybe it’s a dense narrative that takes some wading through to get to the golden parts. This book and this series might be described in that way. Weber’s detailed narrative is sometimes overly descriptive and perhaps a bit repetitive. However, the good parts – and they occur enough in the narrative – are superb. The character interactions, the revelation of a previously conceived belief as a complete falsehood, seeing Clynthan rage and start to lose his composure, the emotions that are evident between Merlin and Caleyb and so forth, really help to overshadow some of the denser plot elements.
With the Safehold saga as a whole, Weber is charting some rather unique territory. The opening of the first volume, Off Armageddon Reef, reads very much like Military SF/Space Opera in the vein of his tremendously popular Honor Harrington saga. The novel turns a corner and becomes a historical, almost epic fantasy highlighted by ideologies and naval battles, with touches of science fictional elements. With the fifth book, the series still is dominated by that fantasy feel, with elements of SF increasingly cropping up as signposts in the narrative. By the saga’s end, and how many books it will take to get there remains to be seen, I suspect Weber will again turn back to more a hard-lined Military SF feel. Weber is an extremely fast and prodigious writer so I hope the series does not get too bogged down in the details (a criticism some have leveled at both this series and his Honor Harrington series), but if it remains at the current pace (or even becomes a bit more brisk), then he will have crafted something really special, in this reviewer’s humble opinion.
How Firm a Foundation would be a difficult novel to recommend to new readers, but conversely, the novel is a strong installment in the series and shows that Weber still has the panache for epic storytelling. His ability to keep me reading and wanting to know what will happen to these characters and humanity as a whole in its pending conflict with the Gbaba is still very strong.
So, if you’ve enjoyed the series to this point, this book will fill the hunger for where the story goes; it keeps the tension high, but suffers a bit more than the previous volumes in the dense wordiness (and those phonetically spelled names) in some of the more descriptive passages. At this point, I still highly recommend the series and consider it one of the top ongoing sagas currently being published.
© 2011 Rob H. Bedford