Through Fiery Trials
By David Weber
It’s been twelve years and ten books since David Weber’s ongoing “Safehold” series began with 2007’s Off Aramgeddon Reef. That first book (in the series, mind you, not in the author’s career; by 2007, Weber, a science fiction hack of the old school, had already written several thousand novels) had an immediately gripping premise: 24th-century humanity ventures into space and encounters a vicious alien species called the Ghaba. The Terran Federation is destroyed, but a remnant of human survivors flees to a distant planet they name Safehold. They know that the Ghaba are alerted to the existence of other species by signs of advanced technology, so Safehold’s settlers determine to lock the world strictly into medieval-level technology, so as to escape the Ghaba’s notice and maybe give the human race a chance to survive. But those original colonists are divided: a madman wants to create a religious cult in his own image, and a dissident creates and hides a cybernetic consciousness containing all the technological advances that attracted the Ghaba to humans in the first place.
Centuries pass. Safehold has completely forgotten its true origins and has become a complex and thriving pre-technological world, run by kings and merchant princes and overseen by the monolithic Church of God Awaiting, which was established all those centuries before in order to cow, bully, and threaten the collective Safehold population away from the path of ever again developing advanced technology, although both the Church and the faithful have forgotten the real reason why. Only that long-dormant cybernetic consciousness, now activated and calling itself Merlin, knows what Safehold really is, and Merlin determines to work clandestinely to help the planet advance.
Still, Merlin is only one android, and the course of mechanized messiahdom gang oft agley, so for ten fat novels, Weber has been free to tell the long and intricate story of Safehold’s kingdoms, Church, and peoples on their own terms, in their own contexts, shifting his narrative from grand operatic tales of clashing states (like the momentous events that concluded the previous book in the series, 2016’s intensely enjoyable At the Sign of Triumph) to the intimate details of world-building. The variety, habits, and precise sizes of the various species of indigenous Safehold lizards, for instance, are endless sources of discussion, as are building methods, farming techniques, and, in this latest book, the adjustments necessary as a newfangled invention known as “railroads” begins to disrupt the Church’s age-old control over inland canal systems:
The Holy Writ prohibited secular rulers from charging for the use of the canals it was the godly’s responsibility to build and maintain. That didn’t mean it didn’t happen. The Canal Service cut across all national boundaries, at least in theory, and was responsible for levying the service fees which helped pay for the canals’ maintenance. Those fees were supposedly earmarked solely for canal maintenance, but they had a persistent way of hemorrhaging into the local authorities’ coffers. It was all very sub rosa, however, and discretion required that the pilferage be reasonably modest lest Mother Church’s auditors be forced to take notice.
It’s only through the grace of a few slim technicalities (Safehold isn’t Earth, and there’s that pesky Merlin), in other words, that the books in this tremendously enjoyable series are science fiction at all. These books are the author’s chance to write an alternate Middle Ages, tweaked here and there with interesting changes and populated on every page in every installment by completely fleshed-out characters ranging the entire spectrum from mustache-twirling eeee-vil to hardworking don’t-care-who’s-in-charge-these-rolls-won’t-bake-themselves to high-minded heroic individuals whose actions move the larger plots along. Plunk yourself down 700 pages into the present volume, for instance, and ignore the fine details of context long enough to feel the wonderful ease with which Weber dashes off this kind of thing, and the consequent ease you have picturing the moment clearly in your mind:
“And exactly why is it that I’m to blame for this?” Merlin asked quizzically.
She paused, clearly searching for some appropriate answer. He only sat there, head cocked, politely waiting, until she shook herself and glared at him.
“Because someone, by example, has taught him to prevaricate,” she said, “and I know it wasn’t me.”
“Oh, of course not! Perish the thought!” Merlin rolled his eyes.
“None of the other four ever did anything like this,” Sharleyan pointed out.
“Never ‘prevaricated’ to save their buns when they were caught red handed?” Merlin’s tone was skeptical.
“Well, never so … badly.” Sharleyan shook her head. “You’d think that with mine and Cayleb’s genes, he’d be better at it.”
“Sharley, he won’t be eight for another five-day and a half! There’s plenty of time. For all you know, by the time he’s twelve he’ll be as good a liar as Nahrmahn was!”
“And this is supposed to make me feel better?”
“Of course it is! A royal or imperial dynasty never has enough skilled diplomats. Just think of what a negotiator he’ll make if he has this kind of gall already and can just acquire the skill set to go with it!”
“My God,” she said. “You actually think you’re funny!”
“Oh, no. I don’t think I’m funny,” he told her with a smile, and she chuckled.
The point isn’t that any of this is boringly done; despite unavoidable dry spots (we are, after all, talking about ten books averaging 800 pages apiece), the Safehold novels are as water-tight as everything else Weber has ever written. This is an author to stick with, a modern-day version of the Golden Age stalwarts of science fiction who wrote reams and reams of pulp and scarcely put a narrative foot wrong the whole time.
No, the point is the aforementioned switcheroo of genres. Step back and look at the larger picture again: mankind is nearly wiped out by a marauding alien species; a splinter of humanity flees to a distant world and determines to keep its technological head down until the coast is clear; their hideout is not discovered; they forget their origins and go native, living as a pre-tech society … forever? And they lived happily ever after? Annnd … scene?
It can’t possibly be boring, not in the hands of a master entertainer like Weber, but how does it make any sense that this is the concentration? Hunkered down with the canal business, rather than telling the larger story? Is humanity really extinct everywhere but Safehold? What happened to the Ghaba, to other pockets of resistance, to Earth? It’s one thing if colonists found a society on Pern and are gradually forgotten as quasi-medieval traditions take over. It’s quite another thing if colonists are fleeing an interstellar war and hiding out on Safehold in desperate hopes they won’t be discovered. The former makes for a terrific series of novels about heroic dragonriders. The latter makes for a terrific series of novels that could all begin with the words “in the meantime …”
In less capable hands than Weber’s, this kind of narrative tension would long since have made the series unendurable. As things stand, I’m sure I’m not the only reader who consumed Through Fiery Trials to the exclusion of all else and now eagerly awaits the next book with a peculiarly mixed set of feelings: wanting to know more of the stories of kings and prophets, and at the same time hoping that in the next book the skies of Safehold are rent by the spaceships of the Terran Federation or the Ghaba or somebody who can bring this long, strange social experiment to an end.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.