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    Review of OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF by David Weber (see his website)

    Tor, January 2007

    Humanity is at the verge of complete annihilation by aliens who refuse to negotiate (the Gbaba). Every colony has been hunted down and the Gbaba forces hugely outnumber what is left of humanity--and are willing to accept any losses to destroy. Humanity puts its hopes for survival in the hands of a secret colony fleet--a fleet that will fly further than any human has before, settle a new world. To protect this future, the new world must avoid any technology that might attract Gbaba interest.

    Eight hundred years later, Safehold's technology laws are enforced by the Church of God Awaiting. Fleet leaders who attempted a more moderate path were destroyed and are now remembered as fallen angels and their followers. But those leaders had a secret weapon--a humanoid robot that is now awakened and who seeks to overthrow the rigid rules of the church. This robot takes on the name, Merlin, discovers a marine powerhouse kingdom named Charis from which to challenge the church, and begins a technological revolution. Since the original fleet leaders (archangels) have long-since died, church leaders can't guess who is introducing these technologies, but they do recognize the threat and mobilize most of the planets remaining naval powers against Charis.

    Merlin's major innovations include cannons with trunnions, corned gunpowder, triangular sails, rifled barrels, and hollow-base bullets--as well as Kenjitsu sword techniques. These weapons and sailing ships, and supported by Merlin's satellite spying devices, the Charis have to take on an entire world. Fortunately, the armies of the world can only reach them by water, and Charis controls the seas. Of course, Merlin recognizes that military might is not enough to overcome an entire world. The power of the Church is so great that only some form of reformation will prevent the Church from using its moral powers to destroy all of his efforts. Arranging something like the Protestant movement of early-modern Europe is essential.

    Author David Weber (see more reviews of novels by Weber) kicks off an intriguing new series with a strong effort. The Safehold world is the familiar Renassance-era technology environment, with the basic innovations in place that allow incremental additions to kick it into the early-modern era. Weber's strength as a writer is in describing societies and especially military action and the second half of this book, in particular, has exciting military action with scenes that closely parallel Napoleonic naval battles (does anyone recognize Nelson's Battle of the Nile in this book?).

    Because the actors who set the world in place are long-since dead (except for Merlin himself/herself), debates about whether a religion-based barrier to technology is appropriate are never entered into. I would have liked, however, for Merlin to at least consider whether what he was doing might not lead to the discovery of the Safehold colony and its destruction by the Gbaba. Instead, the Gbaba are largely forgotten--serving only to explain why this world and its religion was created. I would also have liked to see the coalition navies commanded by professional naval officers, giving them the best chance to operate against Merlin's new inventions--it's a bit too easy when the enemy hobble themselves so badly.

    Weber's prose style isn't exactly elegant, with author description mixing with desciption by dialogue, but the Safehold world and the military sequences are Weber's strength and he delivers strong efforts on both of these.

    I look forward to seeing more in this series--in the hopes that Weber will avoid the trap of adding one more critical technology at a time. I'd like to see human brilliance, rather than Merlin's magic, be the difference in this world (and Weber does point in this direction in OFF ARMAGEDDON'S REEF), and I'd like to see more consequences of Merlin's innovations. While few of us would really want to go back to the middle ages, the economic disruptions of the transformation are definitely where the real story comes in.

    Three Stars

    Want a second opinion? See Wes Reib's comments on this review and on the book.

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