Sea battles and grand emotion: David Weber’s Off Armageddon Reef

Really, it’s astonishing the lengths some people will go to for a sea battle. In Off Armageddon Reef, David Weber has the indomitable alien Gbaba destroy the whole human race except for forty six starships which flee to colonise the distant planet Safehold and brainwash the colonists into settling for a life without technology that could cause the Gbaba to find humanity again. Fortunately one android with the programmed personality of a young lieutenant is left hidden with some useful gear by dissenters, to guide the colony back to the path of righteous tech and away from the stultifying false religion of Safehold—and all this in the first fifty pages.

The novel then settles down to what is familiar ground for Weber—aristocracies, politics, scheming, conflicts of duty and honour. This time he’s dealing with it at a much lower-tech level. The best part of the book deals with the introduction of new (to Safehold) technologies like milling gunpowder, trunnions on cannon and schooner-rigging galleons, and the kind of changes this makes. I have an insatiable appetite for this kind of historical technological detail, and there’s a lot of it here and it’s terrific. Also excellent is Weber’s use of grand emotion—he isn’t at all embarrassed by the kind of scene that many people wouldn’t be able to write without irony. I think that may be one of the reasons for his immense popularity—he throws his heart into scenes that many writers wouldn’t attempt, and readers respond to that. I certainly do. The whole book leads towards a huge climactic naval battle, in which the orthodox forces massively outnumber our guys, to make it fair, since our guys have much better technology and an invulnerable android who can fly and eavesdrop anywhere on the planet.

The way the planet was colonised and the fake religion set up is terrific. I mean, it’s a special case of stacking the deck, but it makes sense. One faction of the future space-navy fleeing the aliens wanted to start again and work on defeating the aliens, the other wanted to hide from them permanently and preserve the human race. You can’t help feeling them both had a point, until the “hide” faction brainwashed all the colonists into thinking the crew were archangels with orders directly from God. The bulk of the story takes place nearly nine hundred years later when a lot of history has happened and humanity has spread across the planet. One book of holy writ consists of satellite maps of the entire globe. Another explains how to treat disease, all practical and religious, no theory. The Inquisition examines any new inventions. The “archangels” wanted to keep everything static, forever. To do this, they imposed a version (or perversion) of the medieval Catholic church. It’s not surprising—or at least it’s arguably plausible—that what they got in surrounding society turned out like a version of medieval Europe, complete with dukes, earls, barons and kings. And that gives Weber a society to play with that’s like history but not specific to our history. Anything that’s the same, or different, can be explained as the way the “archangels” set it up. Given the set-up, the world is effective and realistic, with economics and logistics and communications that make sense.

I hate the names. Weber has used vowel and consonant shifts to take ordinary European names (although the original colonists came from all over Earth and her colonies) and change them just enough that you can see what they originally were. Cayleb is fine, Kahlvin is less fine, and Nahrman Baytz is unforgiveable. There are too many “aa” (Haarald) and Zhs (Zhan, Zhanayt, Zheraald), and too many “y”s altogether. I found this constantly grating and I’m sure I’d have been able to relax into my reading of the book more if they’d either been toned “down” to recognisable names or “up” to unrecognisable ones. This is made worse by the way that the placenames are all recognisable, because they were fixed in writing at the time of settlement, so you keep banging up against this kind of thing. If people really did change pronunciation, they’d keep the spelling the same, and we are reading, after all, so it should be Chahris to be consistent. I’m sensitive to this kind of thing, and I ground my teeth a lot.

I already mentioned how good Weber is on grand emotions. There are a number of set-piece scenes here that are splendid, walking the tightrope line between irony and sentimentality. At his best, Weber can be genuinely stirring. There’s a wholeheartedness to his speeches and declarations. The other thing he does well is set-up—all of the detail of fitting out the galleons and the difference between galleys and galleons and the sizes of cannon is setting up so that at the climactic battle nothing has to be explained and every detail is clear.

This story is deeply lacking in women. I noticed this more this time than I did the first time. True, the central character is a robot version of a female lieutenant—but she changes herself into a male form and is referred to as “he” throughout. Apart from Nimue/Merlin, there are brief appearances from two queens, a duchess and a whore, otherwise the cast is entirely masculine. Even the “devil” Shan-Wei (who is a character in the first section and a swear-word throughout the rest of the novel) is seen entirely through masculine eyes. In a book with as many viewpoints as this one, even in a male-dominated society like Safehold, it’s noticeable. It fails the Bechdel test even if you do count Nimue/Merlin as female.

Weber generally does about as well as it’s possible to do with the issue of having a central character be an immortal android surrounded by mortal people. Nimue/Merlin’s advantages are balanced by him being alone on a planet of people who believe what they have been told to believe. Weber lists the equipment Nimue/Merlin has, and plays fair with the capabilities. I expect some of it—the stockpiled tanks and laser rifles—will come in handy in later volumes. Off Armageddon Reef is the start of an epic, after all. Considering that, it has a surprisingly satisfying end. It’s possible Weber will write many many volumes, and there’s potential for him to do whatever he wants with the series—he can linger with the Charisians and the politics and technology of the 890s, or he can leap forward with Merlin and eventually get back to trounce the Gbaba aliens the humans fled from.

Nimue Alban is supposed to be half-Swedish and half-Welsh. I don’t know why American writers seem to think Welsh people are just like Americans, but I suppose she was born in the twenty-fourth centrury, and maybe by then the whole planet is America. Things have also changed such that it’s less unusual for Welsh people to be extremely rich, and her rich Welsh father gave her an android so she could have fun. And while “Nimue” is presently a pretty much totally unused name for Welsh girls, it is the future, and it does let Weber play with her having her robot called Merlin. And of course it’s true that all Welsh people have sparkling sapphire eyes, as anyone who knows me can testify!

I first raced through this in an advance reading copy before it was published, and I notice two more volumes, By Schism Rent Asunder and By Heresies Distressed, have come out in the three years since then. As with all Weber books there are lots of characters to keep track of, and I didn’t want to read the new volumes without re-reading the first one.

This series is closer to fantasy than the overtly science fictional Honor Harrington series, but they are both Napoleonic in their different ways. Those for whom this is a plus will find a great deal to enjoy here. It’s a lot of fun—and seeing the mechanics of how the universe has been wound up is part of what makes it fun, even if it does have me muttering that some people really will do anything to justify writing a Napoleonic sea-battle. Anything. Cool.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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