The fifth volume in Weber’s Safehold series (after 2010’s A Mighty Fortress) builds solidly on the foundation provided by its predecessors. The Empire of Charis has won a string of hard-fought victories against the military might of the Church of God Awaiting and its corrupt and vengeful vicariate, but despite the advantages provided by the seijin Merlin Athrawes—once, a long time ago in a universe far, far away, the Terran Navy Lieutenant Commander Nimue Alban—and their forces’ ability to dominate the seas, Emperor Cayleb and Empress Sharleyan remain on the defensive against an enemy who on land outnumber them by a margin of fifteen to one.
Worse, the Church, in the person of the Grand Inquisitor, has decided to employ options other than battlefield war. Assassination might be de rigueur, but Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn has single-handed reinvented the terrorist cell in order to better rain explosive gunpowdery death down upon the cities of heretical Charis. He’s also begun to foment civil unrest in Charis’s single potential mainland ally. Meanwhile, Merlin finally learns what technological threat potentially lies sleeping under the Temple in the Church’s city of Zion. Here’s a hint: it’s not good news for Charis.
I should probably mention that How Firm A Foundation is definitely not a book that stands alone, but those of us who enjoyed previous offerings in the series will certainly enjoy this one. Madame Ahnzhelyk Phonda returns under a new alias to stir the pot in the Republic of Siddarmark; Princess Irys and Prince Daivyn, young exiles from the princedom of Corisande, spend time at the fore of the action, as does Ensign Hector Aplyn-Ahrmahk; Paityr Wylsynn, the only Schuelerite priest left in Charis, receives a revelation and has a crisis of faith; Merlin foils another several assassination attempts; and both Church and Charis manoeuvre to prepare for the next round of hostilities.
The early modern weapons development geekery and immense enthusiasm for minute nautical detail of previous books is once again in full flow. I admit, I tend to skim the sections that go deeply into shiphandling: I’ve sailed as crew aboard a tallship, but my tolerance for whole pages of, “Let fall!” “Brace up!” “Clew home!” while backing, tacking, and wearing ship isn’t what it might be. Weapons development is described with loving exactitude, and I skimmed a few of those parts too, in favour of reaching the sections where things went Boom! (occasionally with extreme prejudice) more quickly.
Weber’s most obvious theme, from the beginning of this series, has been the conflict between religion and faith, reflexive obedience and compassionate questioning. It’s an interesting theme to examine, and fun to read (although, dear me, you’d think there might be one atheist from the ranks of people who have learned that their entire world’s belief structure was deliberately built out of whole cloth by their colonist ancestors) but I’m disappointed with the level of Evilness displayed by the Church hierarchy and given prominent position in this volume. It’s not quite cackling, puppy-kicking levels of Eeeeeevil, but it does approach deliberate self-sabotage.
The contrast with our heroes—who are Good, Decent People with Their Backs To The Wall, and nary a power-hungry self-aggrandiser among them—gives me moderate amounts of cognitive dissonance. Particularly when we’re treated to the grimly heroic march towards torturous death of several dozen Charisian naval personnel, the leader of whom, in the grand tradition of unbelievable endurance, dies without having broken under torture.*
*Look, I don’t care how bloody-minded, decent, or stubborn you are. If you don’t die within the first couple of days, at most the first couple of weeks, of sustained torture-in-search-of-a-confession, eventually you’re going to tell the nice men with the knives and the hot irons everything they want to hear. Sufficient torture will destroy your sense of self.
You might recant your confession later, but you’ll make it. Unless we’re talking about someone who can shut off their pain centres at will.
The other thing which annoyed me, in this book as in previous ones, is Weber’s choice of the word jihad to refer to the Church’s holy war of extermination against the heretics of Charis. In a world where most of the visible religious structures seem analogous to medieval Christianity, and any direct Islamic influence is invisible—at least to me—this seems counter-intuitive.
Jihad is a multivalent word in Arabic, and there are four kinds of jihad in Islamic jurisprudence and theology. I’m uneasy with the fact that the English use of the term seems to have accepted the Salafis’ and the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of jihad (as jihad bis saif, struggle by the sword) as the most valid one. It’s an inflammatory interpretation, and I’m uncomfortable to find it used in a context which is not otherwise visibly influenced by Islam.
It’s entirely possible I’m being wildly oversensitive here. But words mean things, and I think it’s appropriate to be a little more careful than usual when using loanwords borrowed directly from someone else’s religion.
On the whole, How Firm A Foundation is a fun, entertaining book, with sea-battles, explosions, and civil uprisings galore. Clocking in over 560 pages—607 including appendices and maps—it’s a hefty one, but it moves along rapidly enough, and developments in the concluding chapters indicate that the next phase of the war may well prove a change of paradigm from the conflict thus far. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.
Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She also reviews for Ideomancer.com.