Volume 28, Number 1, Fall, 2009

By Heresies Distressed

By David Weber
TOR, 2009
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

The new novel in David Weber’s Safehold series continues the themes of the earlier novels: the conflict between enlightenment and deliberate ignorance, and its embodiment on one hand in naval warfare and on the other in religious dispute. His imaginary colony planet of Safehold, after centuries of domination by an authoritarian church, is experiencing the birth of freedom and technological progress...and it’s a difficult and bloody birth, which is what gives the story its drama.

Weber takes some trouble to make it clear that his theme is not the evil of religion as such. There are religious people on both sides of his conflict. But one group have faith that God wants people to obey and submit, and the other that God wants people to know and question. His second group distinguish themselves by adhering to modern Western ideals of religious tolerance, notably by not suppressing the churches of the first group by force. In fact, their worst offense is to punish priests for their crimes just as if they were ordinary human beings. But that’s enough to condemn them in the eyes of the established priesthood, and especially of its principal inquisitor.

In a sense, this novel is retelling the story of the Anglican church splitting off from the Roman...but without the self-centered and corrupt motives that drove Henry VIII, and without a saintly Thomas More figure to protest. This is clearly the English movement to Protestantism as we would like it to have been, with more ethical ideals and less brutality.

And the same could be said of the treatment of naval warfare. Weber’s love of ships at sea has long been obvious; here he gives us literal wooden ships with sails and cannon. Seafaring has long been a sphere of human action where technological advances pay off in a big way, and Weber does a good job of showing how this works. But this reinforces the point that he’s retelling the story of the Anglosphere, the realm of international trade and (comparatively) liberal political institutions that spread out from England to North America, and then to the dominions, and may now be taking hold in India.

Another of Weber’s idealizations in this is a happier relationship between England and France, embodied here in the marriage of his “English” king to a “French” queen who admires him and shares his ideals. The main new plot in this book is the dramatic tension over whether Queen Sharleyann is going to share in her husband’s knowledge of the secret true history of Safehold and the identity of his “bodyguard” Merlin. Unfortunately, it’s false drama, brought about by a legal technicality rather than a real conflict, and ultimately resolved without climactic struggle. Sharleyann is a sympathetic character, but not one who proves her convictions by making hard choices.

Having read three novels in this series, I’d say that’s their one big limitation. They’re a fine spectacle, a kind of pageant of the rise of English liberty and religious tolerance, certainly worthy goals. But they’re more a spectacle than a drama. I would like to see Weber have his key characters make genuinely hard choices, choices that prove their devotion to freedom and scientific progress…or test it. The series so far has been satisfactory entertainment; I’d like to see Weber make it compelling.

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