How Firm a Foundation by David Weber
Synopsis from GoodReads:
The Charisian Empire, born in war, has always known it must fight for its very survival. What most of its subjects don’t know even now, however, is how much more it’s fighting for. Emperor Cayleb, Empress Sharleyan, Merlin Athrawes, and their innermost circle of most trusted advisers do know. And because they do, they know the penalty if they lose will be far worse than their own deaths and the destruction of all they know and love.
For five years, Charis has survived all the Church of God Awaiting and the corrupt men who control it have thrown at the island empire. The price has been high and paid in blood. Despite its chain of hard-fought naval victories, Charis is still on the defensive. It can hold its own at sea, but if it is to survive, it must defeat the Church upon its own ground. Yet how does it invade the mainland and take the war to a foe whose population outnumbers its own fifteen to one? How does it prevent that massive opponent from rebuilding its fleets and attacking yet again?
Charis has no answer to those questions, but needs to find one: quickly. The Inquisition’s brutal torture and hideous executions are claiming more and more innocent lives. Its agents are fomenting rebellion against the only mainland realms sympathetic to Charis. Religious terrorists have been dispatched to wreak havoc against the Empire’s subjects. Assassins stalk the Emperor and Empress, their allies and advisers, and an innocent young boy, not yet eleven years old, whose father has already been murdered. And Merlin Athrawes, the cybernetic avatar of a young woman a thousand years dead, has finally learned what sleeps beneath the far-off Temple in the Church of God Awaiting’s city of Zion.
The men and women fighting for human freedom and tolerance have built a foundation for their struggle in the Empire of Charis with their own blood, but will that foundation be firm enough to survive?
I am so glad I stuck with this series. Despite my occasional issues with it, the books continue to draw me in and I think this one is my favorite so far.
Yes there’s still a lot of ‘padding’. That’s inevitable with a cast this large and scattered across an entire world, pretty much, especially when we get looks in on good guys, bad guys, and those in-between. And I guess it makes some sense to show us what the cast is up to when they’re not directly contributing to either main plot or one of the many subplots, but some things simply aren’t necessary even with all of that.
I’m also still having issues with the names and remembering who they belong to. Five books has given me time to adjust to some of them, sure enough, but there are still plenty that have me confused and every new one continues to throw me into the ‘how do I pronounce that’ pauses that have come to characterize my reading of the Safehold series.
With the two main problems out of the way, let’s focus on what I think Weber is doing right.
First, the continued explanations of the industrialization and invention processes and progress. Yes, if you’re familiar with how it all happened in Earth’s history then it’s a bit like reinventing the wheel. Which is why I often skim those sections and why they can be considered padding. But it’s good to see him showing the characters being both consistent and cautious in going from one invention to the next. Seeing his care with the ongoing industrial revolution reminds me how much authors put into their work but also keeps in mind just how careful the characters have to be to justify their advances.
Second are the parallels to the modern-day, especially with the terrorist attacks mentioned in the above synopsis. This is not and never will be a political blog, but I think it would be foolish to deny that there are plenty of terrorist attacks in the modern day world and have been for decades, at least. Seeing such things play out in the fictionalized world of Safehold can be a brutal reminder, but I appreciate the way Weber doesn’t try to shy from where zealotry – in any form, for any cause – will inevitably end up, whether in terror attacks or atrocities (which is the correct term tends to depend more on whose territory the atrocity in question takes place in, with terror attacks being in Charisian territory and atrocities happening in Temple Loyalist territory; in my mind, it’s all to do with who has power and such, but that’s getting a bit too political for this blog, so moving on).
As the series has progressed, Weber has slowly ratcheted up tension, atrocity, and innovation. He has also given us more characters – and more varied characters – to cheer for, to despise, and to understand via a large variety of shifting POVs. Perhaps the most uncomfortable are the people who believe the lies spread by Clyntahn and his inquisitors, especially the more reasonable among them, as it’s altogether too easy to see how a reader could be one of them in real life based on information flow, the biases and society/culture you’re raised with, etc.
I appreciate escapism as much as the next person (just look at some of my choices in TV shows for proof of that!), but I also appreciate media and entertainment that makes me think. Weber has managed that for me in other series of his, most notably with the political systems in his Honor-verse, but I think this is the first book in the Safehold series that has really made me walk away from it questioning so much of my life.
4 out of 5 stars, and I really regret that I have to wait for an Inter-Library Loan to get my hands on book six, because who knows how long that will take.