The series began with the tagline "The science fiction decade of the decade begins here." A lofty goal for any author, but if there was someone who could pull off such a lofty goal it would be David Weber. Does he deliver though?
As a small introduction to the series, we go some 300 years into the future where humanity has spread to the stars, only to suddenly and horrifically discover that we are not alone. The genocidal alien race the Gbaba slams into humanity with all the force of an interstellar avalanche and one by one wipes out mankind's colonies until only Earth is left facing the invaders. Soon, Earth too dies.
But that is not the end, as a last desperate attempt to save the human race, Operation Ark, is launched to find humanity a new home where they can hide in safety and one day rebuild, and take the fight to the Gbaba. However, the leaders of Operation Ark have slightly different plans and essentially brainwash the colonists into believing they are now, and always have been, denizens of the planet Safehold and were put there by God, and the leaders of Operation Ark are the archangels who watch over them by entrapping them in the Middle Ages. Suffice to say some members of the operation disagreed with this, and in doing so they get wiped out by an orbital bombardment, becoming demons in the worlds mythology. However, they have an ace in the hole, a cybernetic avatar of a dead naval officer named Nimue Alban who adopts the persona Merlin to break the grip of the ruling theocratic body of the planet, the Church of God Awaiting.
Merlin chooses the mercantile nation of Charis and makes their enemies his enemies, and in doing so plunges the world into a holy war in a struggle for its very soul.
That of course, is a suitably epic premise for any series, and one of the main things than attracted me to it. A discourse on the good and ill of organized religion, a clever way to frame giving radio to the Romans in an interesting science fiction setting, and given Weber's choice of emulating the old classical British naval traditions one could expect that this would be a wild ride of discourse and battle.
If you have read my review of Off Armageddon Reef you probably know that I indeed liked that book, and thought it was perhaps the best of the series. That should probably tell you what I think of the rest of the series. That is not to say, that the series is a total bust, but it is lacking in certain aspects where Weber was notably better in his writing than he proved in this series.
Firstly, the series lacks character development to any degree. The characters largely remain the same people they were in the first installments of the series, Merlin has some internal troubles regarding immortality and how he can murder anyone without issue, Cayleb, despite his aging, is almost bratty and impulsive in his attitude towards events in the first book, and even the minor characters simply exist for lack of a better word. Truthfully most characters simply act as mouth pieces for a particular view Weber wants in the story and lack personal conflict and self examination which would otherwise lead to growth across the series. This is doubly true for our main characters who both lack development, and nuance, simply being as pure as the driven snow and frankly boring to read.
That isn't to say there aren't some characters who are actually interesting. You have the Earl of Thirsk, who in any other book would be one of the heroes of the story, as he is facing overwhelming odds against a more advanced enemy while serving a bad cause out of a deep seeded patriotism to his motherland. Then there is Rhobair Duchairn, one of the members of the villainous Group of Four, who grows over time to doubt his original motives and find a new faith and piety. Finally we have Nynian Rychtair, a woman who is at first merely a simple purveyor of the desires of the flesh but morphs into one of the greatest spies David Weber has ever written as the series goes on. Each of them is, in their own way, far more interesting than any of the main characters or endless secondary characters who appears over the course of the thus far nine book series. The fact that these characters grow, or reveal hidden depths, is something that is easy to enjoy, and makes the very bland bread and butter good guy nature of the main cast difficult to overlook in comparison.
Secondly, there is a distinct lack of tension in the series. This is notable in the first book when we see that Merlin has a great big bag of 25th Century toys to throw around against enemies who are roughly working with a 16th-17th century tech level and understanding of the world. This makes Merlin and friends essentially omnipotent, with the only limiting factor on how much they know being the man hours and time it takes to review all of this information, which could have been an interesting factor over time as the amount of data simply piled up too far for the good guys to effectively make use of it, but instead we end up with numerous easy fixes that allow the good guys all the advantages of their technology without any difficulty involved.
Essentially, in all things they have their cake and eat it too.
This lack of tension is felt further in that after the first book, no character of consequence actually dies. That isn't to say that no named characters die, it simply means that of the principal cast after book one not a single one of them ever ends up being removed from the playing field, even with situations where dramatically and practically a characters death would have served the series more we end up with almost miraculous deus ex machina intervention by Merlin's aforementioned grab bag of futuristic goodies which allows him to save his friends lives.
Further compounding this lack of tension is the fact that, despite Weber doing as he has done many times and saying the Charis may not survive, the good guys simply cannot, and do not, lose. Oh it's true that the Charisians do sometimes lose battles, but with one notable exception of the machinations of the Earl of Thirsk, there is never any instance where the Charisians are knocked back strategically and must spend time catching up or readjusting their strategy to make up for losses on a different front of the war. From start to finish it is one grinding victory after another with numerically superior, but technologically inferior, enemies ground down under the heel of Charis's superior weaponry. Where superior weaponry might fail, Merlin's invulnerability fills the gap and effortlessly saves the day for the good guys.
Of course this means that there are endless wasted pages on villain plots that we simply know aren't going to pay off, but we have to look in excruciating detail at how they are conceived and then disrupted. Weber will spend pages saying how the villains are plotting, the good guys know the villains are plotting, and this is how they will foil them. They then proceed to do exactly that and have the actions that they laid out in detail hundreds of pages ago, take place exactly as described then. Much spaced is wasted on events that would probably only take a few paragraphs to wrap up.
Weber makes this doubly annoying by dangling dangerous set backs the bad guys could accomplish in front of you, only for the good guys to counter those problems almost effortlessly. He will spend pages making you think that the bad guys might have an ace in the hole that could mess up the good guys plans, only for said ace to be a dud. There are perhaps two or three occasions in the entire series where this tension has an actual pay off, but in the long run its an overused device that probably annoys people more than it adds anything to the story.
Thirdly, Weber has some specific character tics that every character repeats, whether it is rubbing their nose and saying "um", sarcastic asides in their own heads that sound the exact same no matter who is saying them, or verbal and character tics that show up all over the board being used and reused with reckless abandon regardless of who is saying them.
With these tics showing up so often that it makes secondary characters virtually identical, one tires of reading through their thoughts and responses to little issues. That these bland, unimaginative secondary characters then spend their time engaging in pointless meetings or plots that will ultimately amount to nothing in the long run means that to get to the actual meat of any of the story you must skip or skim dozens of pages at a time to even get to what you want to read.
As an aside, Weber's naming conventions in this series don't help, and it is in some cases physically painful to read certain names. I'll spare you any of it, but suffice to say if you do want to read this series it can be hard to suss out exactly what name someone is supposed to have, and good luck remembering who they are later without being constantly reminded of it before hand.
That all being said, does this series have any redeeming qualities?
Like I've said before, Weber knows his tech. He makes the transition from roughly Elizabethean technology to the level of the early 20th century flawlessly. He knows how it would be employed and all the terrifying effects it has on the enemy.
I personally feel that the technology employed should have far outpaced the institutional know how in the setting by a wide margin by the sixth book. That was another potential plot point which bugged me since the good guys misusing technology, or simply not being able to employ it to its greatest effect, would have been fascinating. But I digress.
Again, the action scenes are excellent, and you can get caught up in the battles. Especially the battles where the bad guys win ironically enough, and so in those instances the books really suck you in. If you enjoy a good battle scene, you can really find them in these books.
The clever use of technology, is also a selling point. The innovative and clever adaptations of new technology to solve certain problems is cleverly done when it isn't a horrible case of dues ex machina. You can really appreciate the cleverness of the writer and the characters on certain occasions.
Safehold itself, is a fascinating planet. The fauna is all largely saurian in nature, and hexapedal creatures are the norm (something of a Weber staple). The sea life is fascinating, from diabolical sharktopus like monsters called kraken, to enormous predatory doomwhales that are all teeth. Then the main aviary life is the many winged wyvrens, which is quite fun to read about. So if you enjoy alien worlds, you will definitely love Safehold, as it is fascinating. Sadly, some of these epic world factors fade into the background over time, but it remains fun background information.
However, all of the above said, the series can really drag if you're not a dedicated fan. I think it is notable that over time the number of reviews, while remaining five stars on most reviewing sites, has dropped considerably as those not invested in the series have simply dropped out from reading it.
So should you pick this series up? Only if you either really like military sci fi or David Weber. If you like both of those things it is probably a must read to see how David Weber uses his amazing knowledge, if you don't like either, don't bother.
I personally, have not read the entirety of the most recent book, At the Sign of Triumph. Buying the hardcover felt pointless, and without maps I felt I wouldn't be able to follow the action as well. I have spent more than an hour sitting in bookstores reading it, and came away distinctly unimpressed.
There will be a second series released sometime in 2018 it is said, but I shall reserve judgement on this new addition to Weber's sprawling canon until I have read some very honest reviews.