Eight or nine years ago, my dad gave me a copy of On Basilisk Station, the first book in the Honor Harrington series, by David Weber. I had never read sci-fi before and I had no reason to start. I think I even said to him, “I’m not going to read one of those nerd books.” I picked the book up many times but never got through the first few pages. Dad kept telling me I needed to give it a serious chance. I’m so glad he did because once I made it past the first 35 or 40 pages, I was hooked. A serious David Weber/Honor Harrington/sci-fi fan was born. Recently I found a random David Weber book that I’d never seen before in the clearance hardcover section at Barnes & Nobel. Of course I bought it and when I showed it to my dad, he said, “That’s not the first one in the ‘Safehold’ series.” Which is one of the most important things you need to understand about sci-fi: many books are part of a series and if you don’t start at the beginning you’re lost. So, I had to find Off Armageddon Reef at the library since it was the first in the series.
Off Armageddon Reef begins about 500 years from now, upon the discovery of an alien species that seeks to destroy all potentially competing species. The Gbaba completely obliterate every human colony they find throughout the galaxy within only a few decades. The human race makes a desperate attempt to fool the Gbaba into thinking they’ve destroyed them all when in reality, they planted one more colony on a distant planet more than 10 light years away from the last human stronghold. The irony is that the Gbaba aren’t that much more technically advanced than we are and in the last few decades, we’ve been able to almost match their capabilities. Almost, but not quite…
Here is where the story really begins. On the new planet of Safehold, the colonizers who are chosen agree to have false memories installed. But what they don’t know is that the command crew of the colonization task force decided to artificially regress the human race to a pre-industrial society. As part of that, they create a religion that outlaws any technological advances. The command crew’s justification for this is to keep the human race safe---if the Gbaba can’t detect them because they lack any sophisticated technology, then they’ll be safe forever. The few dissenting commanders argue that humans are tool builders. There is no way you can stop technological advancement forever and if you don’t preserve the memory of the Gbaba’s invasion, it will only be setting humanity up for failure again.
Before the resistance is destroyed, they are able to hide one android, called a “PICA,” in the mountains, along with some “modern” equipment. This PICA is actually a completely functional, totally realistic appearing robot avatar body with the personality of a real human being inside it. It has the personality and memories of Nimue Alban, a young naval officer who died in the Gbaba’s final assault. 900 years later, her PICA wakes up to find everyone she knows is long dead, even she herself does not exist. Her solitary mission is to infiltrate the deeply religious society now inhabiting Safehold and over time, get them to understand the truth of who they are and prepare them for the eventual Gbaba threat.
I really enjoyed several aspects of this story. The characters are really great. Quite early in the story, Nimue Alban’s PICA has to change its gender, since as a woman, she’d never be able to find a place of influence in this male-dominated world. She becomes “Merlin Athrawes, ” and given his special PICA abilities, he quickly finds his way into the household of one of the planet’s kings. Merlin’s struggles with being a female consciousness inside a male body are interesting, funny and sometimes sad, but it gives the character considerably more depth. He also struggles with the realization of his own “immortality.” He knows that all of the people he is growing to care about will not live as long as he will if he is to complete his mission. It will probably take decades if not hundreds of years to get the planet to the point of being able to defeat the Gbaba, yet all the humans on the planet will only live a normal lifespan.
I also really enjoyed the juxtaposition of this almost medieval society with a technologically advanced robot. It’s almost like you get the best of both worlds---like a historical fantasy and a futuristic sci-fi book in one.
Crack Factor – 8.5. I’ve never read a boring David Weber book and this one doesn’t disappoint. You’ll speed through the book because you can’t wait to find out what happens. I even had to skip ahead a few times—a sure sign of intensity in my world.
People Factor – 9. David Weber never shortchanges the reader on characters. You’re bound to love at least a half a dozen people in each book and loathe at least as many.
Story Telling Factor – 9. The story is very intricate and well thought out. He develops this whole religion for Safehold and explains exactly how the colonizing command crew designs the planet and dupes every man woman and child who colonize it. What’s great about the book is that even with these intricacies, it’s still an action book and moves fast.
Writing Skills Factor – 8.5. I’ve read a lot of Weber in the past and his writing skills are really fabulous. At times he does get a little wordy with description which is why I’m putting this lower than a 9. I tend to skim the overly-detailed parts because they bug me. But with that said, he can also make you feel the emotions of his characters, and that is a mark of a great writer.
Bad Ass Babe Factor – 9. Technically, I guess Merlin is not a woman, he’s a male-appearing robot, but because he started out as a woman, I’m going to keep her in the BAB arena. Aside from the cool android stuff that Merlin/Nimue can do, what impressed me most about this character was her amazing intelligence, her compassion and her sense of duty and loyalty.
Total rating 8.8.