Hell’s Foundations Quiver (Safehold #8) by David Weber
Synopsis from GoodReads:
TURNING OF THE TIDE
Centuries ago, the human race fought its first great war against an alien race—and lost. A tiny population of human beings fled to distant Safehold. Centuries later, their descendants have forgotten their history; for them, life has been an eternal Middle Ages, ruled by the Church of God Awaiting, whose secret purpose is to prevent the reemergence of industrial civilization.
But not all of Safehold’s founders were on board with this plan. Those dissidents left behind their own secret legacies. One of those is Merlin Athrawes, cybernetic avatar of one of Earth’s longdead defenders, now reawakened after a thousand years to restart human progress and reclaim our place in the universe. Merlin has intervened in the small Safeholdian realm of Charis, seeding it with ideas and innovations and helping it to rise to challenge the hegemony of the Church.
It’s been a long and bloody fight, but aided by a stream of inventions—breechloading rifles, signal rockets, claymore mines, new approaches to manufacturing and supply—Charis and its few allies seem to have finally gained the upper hand. Now major realms have begun to consider switching sides.
To all these ends, Merlin Athrawes has been everywhere, under multiple disguises and wielding hidden powers. The secret of who and what he is has been closely held. But a new player has arrived, one who knows many secrets—including Merlin’s own.
This series is really hard for me to rate sometimes because of just how much is in it. On the one hand, I get why we need so broad a view of the battlefront and the people on each side – we need to see the scope, the consequences, and the decisions and reactions. On the other hand… can we please just have some names that I can remember?
I started this book a day after I finished its immediate predecessor, a happy state of affairs that hasn’t always attained for this series. And even with that advantage I’m still struggling with placing names – and how to pronounce them! That slows me down, brings me out of the reading experience, and makes me take some time to be like, “okay, you’re on THIS side and fighting in THIS location”. And that takes away from the action in an unfortunate manner.
But I love seeing how broad this conflict is, because it is genuinely huge. And it helps to realize the scope and audacity by getting viewpoints from every front of the war as well as all of the various home fronts. It does mean some characters seem to be getting less screen time than I personally would like, but I appreciate the way it lets us see everything.
However, is that decision to show ‘everything’ too ambitious for a novel series? To give an example, think of each book in this series as trying to sum up everything happening in WWII over a given period of time, with each book getting roughly a year (give or take, depending on the installment) to show what’s happening in: the Pacific Theater, the European Theater, the African/Mid-Eastern Theater, the concentration and death camps, the army training grounds for both the Axis and the Allies, the political leaders for every major nation, AND the factories/technological developments in at least three of the major nations.
That’s a lot. And that’s essentially what Weber’s doing with his Safehold series. It scaled up slowly at first from novel to novel but for the past two novels AT LEAST he’s been trying to cover all of the above. Personally, I don’t mind it (even if I do skim a lot of the tech talk). But I know it’s not for everyone and there are probably a lot of readers who think it’s overly ambitious.
Speaking of the concentration/death camps… Okay, WARNING: WE’RE ABOUT TO COVER HEAVY MATERIAL! All right, warning over, so… This book is incredibly hard to read in places. Many of the previous books have already shown atrocities, both in detail and glossed over, so if you’re still reading then you shouldn’t be surprised to find more. But for me, personally, I had to take time after each segment that dealt with one of the concentration camps.
I have to applaud Weber in two respects here: one, he’s not afraid to shy away from the natural consequences of the type of religious/civil/world war he’s depicting and, two, he’s done his research for more than just the military and industrial revolution history that is still the main focus of the series. I have, personally, done a lot of studying both on my own and through various courses on WWII, specifically the concentration/death camps. I suppose that’s inevitable given my background. To fact-check most of Weber’s work I would have to do research – but I don’t need to in the case of the concentration camps, and even as I found myself sickened by reading through those passages I highly applaud his decision to include them, to FOCUS on them, even. It’s rare to see anyone outside of a historical fiction novel set in WWII to not only use concentration camps but to truly show what they were like. Because it’s fiction Weber is able to give happier endings to more of them – and different ways of getting those happier endings – but that doesn’t stop the effectiveness of his portrayal of them. I don’t necessarily want to see them crop up in more fiction, but I am very happy to see them well-represented when they do appear. And it is this sort of exploration that makes me like speculative fiction so much.
Okay. Heavy stuff out of the way. Back to the rest of the review.
Which is, mainly, that none of my prior criticisms have really changed: names, first and foremost; way more male POVs – and even just characters present – due to the way the world was set up; and often long technological passages that I’m not much interested in and mainly seem to be included just to show how people are developing their advances in industry and warfare. One new criticism: if 100 pages of your novel are character names and ranks, you might have a problem.
We did get a few more female POVs in this novel but I’m not expecting them to last, for the most part, since they’re all basically side characters. I’d like to see more of a particular character than we are, considering her relationship to Merlin, but I’m not holding my breath on that since we’ve had her for a book and a half now and had maybe a handful of POV scenes from her – a double handful at most in novels that are over 500-600 pages (not counting the character index).
And one final…not criticism, precisely, but observation: most of the Safehold novels end on a cliffhanger, with one person appearing before another and dropping a game-changing one-liner. I’ve been told that, if you’re writing a series, each book should wrap up A plot while leaving threads that will clearly carry it into the next one. Now, clearly there is dissent on this opinion, as well there should be, but I’m not sure how I feel about cliffhangers this specific, especially on the occasions when I’ve had to wait months between books. These are cliffhangers I’m used to seeing between chapters, to keep a reader turning pages to get to the end. I suppose they’re effective in getting you to reach for the next book, but I’m able to binge all of the Safehold novels are out. If I hadn’t been able to do that, the sense of urgency might have been lost and then I’m not sure it would be quite so effective in motivating me to keep going.
There’s one novel left and I’m not sure how Weber’s going to wrap everything up since it feels like there are too many dangling threads, but we’ll see – I was able to get my hands on it and will have started reading it by the time this post goes live. From what I’ve heard, there’s going to (eventually, at some point) be a sequel series to this one, but who knows. Not me.
3.5 out of 5 stars.