A Mighty Fortress by David Weber
Synopsis from Amazaon (above link to GoodReads):
Young Cayleb Ahrmahk has accomplished things few people could even dream of. Not yet even thirty years old, he’s won the most crushing naval victories in human history. He’s smashed a hostile alliance of no less than five princedoms and won the hand of the beautiful young Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm. Cayleb and Sharleyan have created the Charisian Empire, the greatest naval power in the history of Safehold, and they’ve turned Charis into a place of refuge for all who treasure freedom.
Their success may prove short-lived. The Church of God Awaiting, which controls most of Safehold, has decreed their destruction. Mother Church’s entire purpose is to prevent the very things to which Charis is committed. Since the first attempt to crush the heretics failed, the Church has no choice but to adopt some of the hated Charisian innovations for themselves. Soon a mighty fleet will sail against Cayleb, destroying everything in its path.
But there are still matters about which the Church knows nothing, including Cayleb and Sharleyan’s adviser, friend, and guardian— the mystic warrior-monk named Merlin Athrawes. Merlin knows all about battles against impossible odds, because he is in fact the cybernetic avatar of a young woman named Nimue Alban, who died a thousand years before. As Nimue, Merlin saw the entire Terran Federation go down in fire and slaughter at the hands of a foe it could not defeat. He knows that Safehold is the last human planet in existence, and that the stasis the Church was created to enforce will be the human race’s death sentence if it is allowed to stand.
The juggernaut is rumbling down on Charis, but Merlin Athrawes and a handful of extraordinary human beings stand in its path. The Church is about to discover just how potent the power of human freedom truly is.
The good news is that I’m still enjoying this series. The action remains interesting, many of the characters are engaging, and not all of the ‘bad guys’ are evil for the sake of evil (although some certainly are).
However, there are still some problems with this book in particular and the series as a whole. Thankfully, the grammatical and spelling errors that littered earlier books in the series have been severely curtailed by this, the fourth book in the Safehold series.
Unfortunately, the names remain a major sticking point for me. The spelling versus pronunciation is very distracting and still brings me out of the book, either with new names or with names that I feel like I should know but don’t. Again, I understand that this was a stylistic choice from the beginning, meant to show the language shift, but it still doesn’t work for me.
The second main problem in this particular novel is the question of gender and sexuality. Nimue Alban is effectively dead – the main character thinks in masculine terms and with the name Merlin. Even in private. All the time, nonstop. But in the first book, he was still attracted to males, and therefore took his cybernetic body’s sexual functions offline to avoid embarrassment – and possibly worse, although homosexuality hasn’t been discussed at all on Safehold, not even when talking about sexual perversions (those seem to mainly be pedophilia). I was all right with this and actually thought it worked rather well because it showed that Nimue was still in there.
In this novel, however, we have a direct contravention of several of those facts: Merlin is sexually active with a woman and notes that, in this body, he is attracted to women, meaning either Nimue’s base personality is strictly heterosexual, regardless of the gender s/he finds hir body to be, or else Merlin has discovered something about Nimue that she never suspected. In previous books, we have still had glimpses of attraction to men, but not in this novel.
Further, Merlin refers to himself as ‘one of these uppity women, in a roundabout way’ (I’m paraphrasing, but close enough). Now, since there is absolutely no sign Merlin still considers himself a woman in any way, shape, or form (as of this book; you can make a case for the prior three), this can be seen as a bit insulting. Especially when you consider the continued minority of female characters, particularly POV female characters.
If none of this gender/sexuality stuff bothers you, great. But it does bother me, mostly because of the contradictions to prior novels. I was hoping to see a greater exploration of the gender/sexuality issues inherent in Nimue-to-Merlin, but blatant contradictions weren’t what I meant.
Despite that, however, I’m still enjoying the series. It remains engaging and I remain eager to see where it goes. Perhaps that’s because of the parallels I see between Charis and Israel – ‘the question of Charis’, indeed! – or perhaps it’s testament to Weber’s skills at creating a believable world, believable struggles, and something to invest in. Maybe it’s both. Either way, I’m still eager to see where the series goes.
This one gets 3.5 stars out of 5. I really wanted to rate it higher, but the two scenes that dealt with gender and sexuality – specifically Merlin’s – are sticking with me too much, and in a way that’s a bit too negative to ignore.