Off Armageddon Reef
by David Weber
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780330452182
Date: 04 January 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Tor UK bring David Weber's weighty space opera to a British audience with this paperback original release. This impressive epic was originally reviewed by our own Drew Bittner when it was first released in the US early last year and his take on the book is reprinted in this month's issue.
Off Armageddon Reef, the new novel by bestseller David Weber, opens in the closing days of humanity's star-spanning civilization. Relentless attacks have destroyed billions of lives and spurred a last-ditch plan to save some tiny remnant of the human race. A colony that will not use high technology (the telltale that lures the aliens from world to world) is to be founded. In time, it is planned that they will develop technology that can defeat and obliterate the implacable Gbaba.
Things don't work out that way. A church created to support technological stasis succumbs to the temptations of power and is run by wealthy, corrupt theocrats (again, much like the Middle Ages), while the diverse kingdoms either support them or (like the rebellious land of Charis) seek to break free.
Nimue Alban was a member of the colonization fleet, but gave her life to save said fleet from the Gbaba. She lives on, however, in a complex AI that can be downloaded into cybernetic bodies. Waking up roughly 800 years after the colony's founding, she quickly realizes how badly the flaws of the colony planners (megalomania and a need to be worshiped, in particular) have twisted the world and its inhabitants. Creating a new identity for herself -- Merlin Athrawes -- she (now he) sets out to support young Prince Cayleb of Charis, a free thinker and potential revolutionary, in his bid to break the church's power.
It won't be an easy or fair fight. The Church will use its awesome power and political allies to destroy Charis, once they realize that their edicts are being ignored and that "Merlin" represents a danger: a source of technological innovation, a thing that is worse than heresy, worse than sin. They'll be joined by princes Hektor and Nahrmahn, both leaders of enemy nations and hate-filled foes of progress.
Cayleb and Merlin work together to expose their enemies, both foreign and domestic, while consolidating the gains offered by Merlin's knowledge (and his technological bag of tricks). It's a race against time and one they cannot afford to lose, lest the Gbaba stumble across humanity's last home... or the church forever extinguish the light of human reason.
David Weber, best known for his Honor Harrington series, continues to grow and stretch as a writer. Although his fiction has always been more sophisticated than most combat-oriented SF, in terms of politics and social commentary, this may be his most ambitious effort yet at defining the mindset of intolerance as an enemy of human destiny. The Church of God Awaiting represents what is generally a fantasy trope -- the all-powerful and ruthlessly hostile church -- yet gives it a new spin by constructing a strong rationale for its existence apart from religion itself. There are good reasons (and some colossally bad ones) why things are as they are, but Weber does an excellent job of positing the basis for his society before setting out to blow it all up.
The characters reflect Weber's preference for strong characters, although (somewhat oddly) there are no strong female characters among the protagonists. Although Nimue becomes Merlin, we see very little gender-bending or even gender identity issues crop up, while Cayleb is a young man with sterling qualities ... but no definable love interest. This isn't necessarily bad but it is worth mentioning, given Weber's history.
The plot is, as noted, very ambitious, setting up a society that must be overturned if humanity is to survive. The behavior control and social engineering were necessary but must be outgrown -- and those in power, who reap the benefits of this perverted system, will naturally do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening. Princes Hektor and Nahrmahn represent the villainous side in this equation, moving to assassinate Cayleb and seize Charis by force. (This gives Weber the chance to write the naval battles at which he excels, incidentally.) Meanwhile, the Church's leadership fears both a loss of power and a shattering of their spiritual authority if Cayleb succeeds, so they expend their vast resources to ensure it won't happen. It becomes a battle of outnumbered-but-better-equipped against large-but-less-advanced (mirroring many of his early Harrington books), but is set in an entirely new context. Fans may think it could be the same-old/same-old from Weber but it isn't, not remotely.
Fans of large-scale science fiction, where the battle of ideas is on a level with the battle of navies, will enjoy the kick-off of this new series.Strongly recommended.