How Firm a Foundation (Safehold Book 5)
MacMillan Audio, 2011
I missed out on reviewing David Weber’s fourth Safehold novel A Mighy Fortress. The audiobook just got lost in the shuffle at the time. However, when the fine folks MacMillan Audio offered me a review copy of How Firm a Foundation I jumped at the chance and am I glad I did. My initial feelings towards the first few volumes of David Weber’s Safehold novels were typically positive with some reservations. My major complaints for By Schism Rent Asunder were outlined primarily as follows:
Weber’s perimise, conceptually a pre-industrial Earth set about reclaiming and rediscovering technology is both a fascinating exercise in science fiction and a frequent narrative trap. The latter occurs through often lengthy dialogue, or worse internal monologue, passages where characters are forced to come up with or reconceive (sic) object, tools, and theories in a way slightly different, or wholly new, from what we the reader might be familiar with. At the same time these rediscoveries must deal with as yet undefined scriptures of the church that prevent certain undefined technologies. Weber frequently gets bogged down in these explanations which despite being interesting reduce the novel’s pace to a crawl.
With How Firm a Foundation (hereafter HFF) that quibble has by and large disappeared. As Merlin’s secret has been outed to more and more people over the course of the series the narrative has been able to open up and include more detail on the characters and political maneuverings across the surface of Safehold. HFF is for me the first time this series has moved beyond being good into being something great.
Note: Having listened to the audio and only listened to the audio I can guarantee that I have spelled some if not all the character’s names wrong. Weber’s decision to spell things oddly (Caleb as Cayleb, Merlin as Merlyn, etc.) doesn’t help at all either.
The opening of HFF sees the Empire of Charis in firm command of sea power in Safehold however the tiny empire struggles with manpower. When it comes to population the people of Charis are outnumbered 15 to 1 compared to its enemies and while the nation struggles to figure out a means to overcome that disparity its many enemies maneuvering against in unspeakably terrible ways. As new people are added into the inner circle of Charis, those who know the secret of Merlin, the Church of God Awaiting, and Safehold itself new complications are added. New information about mysterious power sources beneath the Temple at Zion, and a long held secret family tradition, shed light on potentially troubling developments regarding the plans the “archangels” set forth in the distant past. Elsewhere everyone’s favorite ship’s hand turned duke Hector Aplan-Armach gets a moment to shine and the somewhat traditional adventure-at-sea feel to his part of the story plays an excellent counterpoint to the more dire stakes seen elsewhere in the novel.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of HFF is the careful examination of hardline religious fundamentalism versus a more liberal and accepting take on religion makes for easy parallels to modern society. The ideological split between the Church of God Awaiting and the Church of Charis could be similar to that within various religions across the modern world. As a result the terrorist attacks seen in HFF from the destruction of a large powder store, to direct attacks on the population of Charis call up, perhaps mostly to the American mindset, memories of our own experiences with terrorism. Indeed more than ever the machinations and rantings of Vicar Jaspar Clinton eerily and chillingly echo the rhetoric of extremists like Osama Bin Laden or Fred Phelps. Jaspar Clinton, who might have easily slid into the realm of villainous caricature is instead made frighteningly real by that fact he so readily resembles real people. I don’t know why this comparison never really occurred to me before now but for some reason Clinton’s actions and his vitriolic and hate-filled take on religion really hammered home that connection bringing an otherwise fantastical novel of a distant future into present of our own world.
Similarly HFF takes another longer look at the nature of faith in Safehold. It has been looked at many times before in the series but as the circle of people who know the truth continues to expand that examination becomes more and more fascinating. People like Michael Stainaire, who know the lie behind the Church of God Awaiting yet continue to believe firmly in a loving benevolent God are fascinating and takes Weber’s story, what could have been an excoriating take on the dangers of religion, into a more rounded examination on the nature of faith and belief. The are three big sides side, at least that I can see, to this examination. On one side you have Michael Stainaire who has taken on a very individual based view on man’s relationship with God despite the known falsehoods behind the foundation of his former religious views, on the next you have Vicar DuCerne who has had a religious reawakening within the confines of the Church of God Awaiting, and lastly you have the Grand Inquisitor with his uncompromising (and potentially self-deluding) views on religion. The heart of the world sweeping conflict of the series is in essence about the relationships between these various views on faiths. Each side has several layered sub-strata and the exploration of faithful man’s exposure to the truth is examined in a little bit of detail as the novel progresses. This aspect of the series was brought more into the limelight in the previous volume and has come even more the fore here.
Readers will likely note that HFF is a much more sedate novel than previous entries. While some might take umbrage with the drop in pacing I rather enjoyed the more sedated tone and though that the novel provided an excellent means to take stock of just how the landscape has changed. It definitely feels something like a set-up novel laying groundwork for big things to come in future volumes. This series is, and always has been, something of a slow burn in terms of action and plot resolution but with HFF things sort of feel like they are closer than ever to really exploding. HFF also marks the second time the Safehold series has changed narrators this time to Charles Keating (Oliver Wyman and Jason Culp have narrated the other volumes). Keating does a passable job at reading but doesn’t inject the text with the emotion of previous narrators. In truth that didn’t bother me too much, but his consistent and even deliver might be wearing or even boring for readers look for a bit more vigor in an audiobook performance.
Despite its slow opening there was a certain emotional resonance to the events of HFF that elevated it above earlier volumes for me. The complete lack brainstorming ways to reinvent old technologies was a welcome change and, in an almost contrary fashion, seeing some new-old technologies put to use once again was still a thrilling read. I’ve almost come to expect each of these novels to have some sort of “Q briefs Bond on new gadgets” scene and that is still the case here but those moments are refreshingly brief. I feel like I’ve said this with every volume but HFF is the strongest entry in the Safehold series yet. While some might complain at the series length I for one am perfectly content to sit back and enjoy the ride.