Review: Off Armageddon Reef

Posted: October 25, 2018 by in Books We Don't Like (2/5 single_star) Meta: David Weber, Science Fiction

So, we don’t normally do reviews for books that were written so long ago (first published in 2007). Especially for books that weren’t just awesome-sauce fantastic. In fact, we generally frown on writing reviews for books this old as a general rule, unless they’re considered a “Classic”. There are a few extenuating circumstances, however, that made just such a review feel justified in my mind. One: this is the first book in an ongoing series that has not yet been completed. Two, the next book in the series (#10: THROUGH FIERY TRIALS — Amazon) has a release date of January 2019. So, at least the series is current. Three, I’ve come across several references in my time from individuals that like this series very much. And there are soon going to be ten books in the series. So, this whole situation got me to thinking. If someone were to see the release of this newest book, and then decide that it sounded like something worth checking out, and then went on to find this, the first book in the series: how would their experience be?

And giving opinions on this exact situation just happens to be our specialty here at EBR. So I dove in, hoping for some goodness.

OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF (Amazon) is the first in the Safehold series by David Weber, an author that I’d not previously read, but who has an impressive list of publications that date back into the very early 90s. That list, although predominantly filled with science fiction titles, jumps back and forth between it and fantasy quite often. And although this story reads very much like a traditional fantasy novel with some magic (technological elements are present but hidden from the population at large), it’s still very much a science fiction book.

The story begins with the immediate understanding that the human race is being systematically and ruthlessly hunted down and exterminated by an alien race known only as the Gbaba. It has become clear to those in power that they are going to lose the war, and so they make a final gambit in hopes of saving humanity as they know it. They stage a massive misdirection within the purview of the Gbaba, which allows them to secret a sufficiently large population onto an unknown, but habitable planet called Safehold. In order to make sure that they stay safely away from the knowledge of the Gbaba, all survivors have their memories wiped, and a civilization is set up that suppresses technological advance. For it is the residual effects of technological advance that have allowed the Gbaba to track down and kill so much of the human race thus far.

Several hundred years pass in relative peace, and it is at this point that the “fantasy” world of Safehold is presented. Those in charge of the original mission set up a “religion”, very similar in nature to that of modern-day Christianity, although missing its central figure and relying mostly on “angels” to make up its divinity. These angels are those that help to keep the veil over the eyes of all Safeholdians through the use of mind control and very well-hidden high technology. Things have gone very well thus far, all things considered, but a wrench is about to get thrown into the works. Because not all of those in power nearly a millennia ago agreed that taking this route was the best option. So they secreted away an ace up their sleeve, so to speak. Lieutenant Commander Nimue Alban had her consciousness transferred into what amounts to an advanced android, and lo these 800 years later, she wakes up. But the android has a male body, and so she takes on the name Merlin and sets about seeing what she (he) can do to give technological advance a swift kick in the backside.

Not too bad of a setup. As told here, the beginning was bound to have a slow start and it does, once the reader realizes that the spaceship-fighting in outerspace is really just a prelude to the series at large. That very slow pacing continues as the story is told through the POVs of a very wide array of individuals. If you’re familiar with our opinions here at EBR, you’ll know that this kind of delivery tends to ruffle our feathers the wrong way. The issue is further complicated by a significant amount of head-jumping, especially in the beginning chapters, which makes for confusion in the ranks and frustration a go-go. There are those stories that do it and by-and-large get away with it. Here it caused repeated issues with following what was going on in the story. The largest amount of the story, however, revolves around and is told through the POVs of this android Merlin and Crown Prince Cayleb of Charis, a kingdom of middling size to which Merlin is attracted for its potential to his cause. But even at that, I’d be surprised if that “largest amount” was more than 50%.

The very large difficulty that I had with this book was that all of the story — almost literally all of it — is told through one of two methods.

1) Explanation. This happens when information is, for all intents and purposes, handed to the reader without any real context other than the fact that the author wants to get this information across to them. It’s important to my story. Read it. The problem is that unless spoon-fed by relatively small doses, this kind of storytelling is tedious and grows overly boring after more than just a few pages. Some of the information here is told through a character’s thoughts, while they are sitting in a room, or standing on a building, or otherwise not interacting with anything or anyone else.

That’s the first method. And there’s LOTS of it. Especially in the beginning. Jumping Jehoshephat there’s a lot of it. Which brings us to:

2) Conversation. This is exactly what it sounds like: two or more people sitting around talking about things as they pertain to the story. Really, this is just more information that the reader needs, told to them in a marginally more palatable way. And it gets just as tedious as explanation after the umpteenth time.

These two methods — explanation and conversation — make up what I’d guess to be roughly 98% of the book. All of the world-building, all of the known history, all of the political machinations, all of the character’s motivations (those that are in the group talking and those that aren’t as well — but why would I do that? Not when this is the case. But then he’d obviously do this over here. And if he does that, what can we get this third person to do…) I think you get the picture.

I kept telling myself that the action had to start sometime. It honestly wasn’t going to spend 600+ pages of book like that. Was it? Alas, it does. To my memory there are three fairly short scenes when those involved are actually doing something active, and not simply talking to one another. I kept wanting it to get better. It’s not horribly written. Terribly slow though, yes. It has a halfway-decent premise too. I mean, the Gbaba have to come back into the fray sometime, right? That could spice things up. Well, I just read the synopsis for book 10 on Amazon. Want to know what it doesn’t mention? At all? The Gbaba. Ten books and they still haven’t come back into play.

You know what? No thanks.

OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF is a frustratingly slow and tedious story that is told like fantasy, but has a science fiction premise and feel.

It may be possible that this story turns into an amazing series. I just wouldn’t be able to handle the slog. And the books later on in the series would have to be pretty freaking amazing indeed to get me to push through to them. I’m talking like, better than Malazan Book of the Fallen (EBR Archive) amazing. Which I don’t see happening.

Anyone else have an opinion on this one? Does the story get better later on? And most importantly, did you like this book? Because if you liked this one, I don’t think we’re going to see eye to eye on much at all when it comes to books. At this point I certainly don’t plan on coming back to the series for any more, and I say “best of luck” to anyone that does.

  • Recommended Age: 15+
  • Language: Very little but moderately strong
  • Violence: Gets pretty violent, especially toward the end where there is a decent amount of cannonball gore
  • Sex: A few relatively mild references


  • Darren A Jones says:

    I read this one and the next one, and then gave up. The next one did have a bit more action, but not enough to make it worth the slog.

    I love Weber’s fantasies and his stand-alone sci-fi, but his series tend to get bogged down, imo.

  • Brett says:

    The tendency to write novels that read more like minutes from a meeting is one of Weber’s greatest weaknesses. When he overcomes it he really hits the mark — a couple of the later volumes of the Safehold series do manage to shed that weight but unfortunately more don’t.

  • Rachel Martin says:

    I read this one too, was still deciding if the next one would be worth it. Clearly not. That’s a bummer, it had a little potential. I am into futuristic reads at the moment it’s Dennis Meredith’s Neuromorphs, for this books information. He’s got a good basis with Robots and technology with the human aspect. It really works. I guess they can’t all get it right all the time! Meredith does well though.

  • Josh Clark says:

    This is a book, and the Safehold series, is one that I love, but it’s clearly not for everyone. While there are moments of thrilling action which become more common throughout, that is not the focus of this book or the series.

    I always enjoyed corny what if stories where time travelers use some modern knowledge to give an advantage to the people they find themselves with in the past. I enjoyed, even more, thinking about how the implications would change far more than the simple facet in the story.

    This story is a fan of history in general, and military history especially, having fun with that notion. I found the climactic battles at the end of this book enjoyable, but these are a brief portion and if you do not like the explanations and engineering discussions you will not enjoy this book, or much of the series, because these are not, primarily, action books. They’re explorations of the development of technology, its impact on warfare and economies. If you nerd out on discussions of barrel material, length, and bore, and how these impact the performance of a cannon, you may love this series like I did. If not, give it a pass and find something more to your liking.

    If the initial idea sounded interesting but the direction taken by the Safehold series sounds as dull as a root canal, Weber also co-wrote another, shorter series with John Ringo. That series, starting with “March Upcountry”, is much more action focused. Having found it after I read the first nine Safehold books, I noticed some similar beats, but rather than a novel form discussion of engineering, the “March Upcountry” series is all about the characters’ Odyssey across a hostile planet and struggle to conserve or create the weapons they need to survive the beasts and brush wars they find themselves beset by.

    • Writer Dan says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot of Weber’s other stuff is great. I really need to pick up something else of his. We also have a review up for one of his Honor Harrington books, and it was definitely more positive than this one.

      Per your comments, I’d suggest you try out KJ Parker’s Engineering trilogy (EBR Archive), a series that I liked considerably better than the review we have posted, but also includes a lot of the pieces of story that you highlighted here.

  • Mik says:

    I searched for this, there had to be someone else who thought the same. Thank you for the confirmation bias haha. I set out three years ago to finish every book I start. I read on average 20 books a year. This is now the third book I just could not finish.

    It is as you said painfully slow. To find out 10 books later the ghaba never comes back or is potentially completely irrelevant somehow makes me feel I’ve made the right choice here.

  • Chad Bussell says:

    I am currently working through book 8, and am enjoying the series. That said, as a fan of it – everything in this review is 100% accurate to my experience. Somehow though, just ends up working. Definitely an acquired taste though.

    • Writer Dan says:

      I know that there are tons of fans of this series out there, and just because a series starts out with a relatively weak entry, that doesn’t mean everyone should avoid continuing with it. I mean, both Malazan and Dresden take until the third book in their respective series to really get going.

      Given where you are in the series, would you say that it’s stayed consistent in its story-telling means/ability, or is there some kind of breaking point where it started to get better for you maybe? We’ve had a few people comment above that they agree with my review. Would love to hear a little more about your experience and the things you really enjoy about the series that make it worth continuing to read. Cheers.

  • Sound of Text says:

    I really enjoyed this book. It was a great read and I learned a lot.

  • Minue says:

    I do love most of Weber’s books, although the endless (and sometimes redundant) dialogue can get tedious, yes. The early Honor Harrington books are the best, and Empire of Man is also great.

    Safehold has some good and some bad parts. I did love book 3 and 4 particularly, because they reminded me of one of my favourite novels when I was a teenager, a description of the life of priests during the french revolution.

    I skipped some chapters in the later books, because they were irrelevant to the development of the characters I was really interested in.

    Book 5 reveals a new secret related to the original colony, and I admit I skimmed ahead to find out what the secret was – only to discover that it is not resolved even in book 10. Why introduce it at all, if it won’t matter to the story? It was not even necessary, the major conflict between Charis and the Church is interesting enough. Another thing is, some major plot twists become predictable once you have read a couple of Weber books. He seems incapable of having his heroes make a complete, disastrous mistake they have not at least anticipated, so it is guaranteed that when they start discussing something like “should we really do that, it may go wrong” or “I’m worried this or that situation may have bad consequences” this is exactly what will happen a few chapters later. Unfortunately, that makes the following battles a lot less interesting.

    I also (and that, I admit, also happened in the Honor Harrington series) started to feel sorry for some of the villians after a while, because no matter how much effort they put into winning at least one battle, the good guys always had some new shiny technological advantage that completely erased everything they did. In some ways, the basics of the conflict are very similar to the Harrington novels: small and smart nation fights against big, stupid and corrupt enemy, and wins again and again despite its intial disadvantages. It also has some almost magical secret trump card that the enemy never discovers – telepathy in the Harrington novels, and Merlin’s spy technology here. For some reason, the big and stupid enemy never manages to catch up with the technological advantages of the little guy or eliminate the trump card, despite his advantage in ressources and manpower, and total lack of moral scruples. One could only wish this was true in reality.

    Another thing that bothered me was the timeline. Either the empress was pregnant for years, or some of the ships were a lot faster than they were supposed to be. I tried to ignore it, but this is something that bugs me, in particular when books are otherwise very focused on details – and because there was no reason for it. Merlin is immortal. He could have lived through several generations with his various disguises.

    Aside from that, I loved the books. I like the attention to detail, and how much effort Weber obviously puts into describing the technology used, and how it is gradually improved over time. I also always like at least some of his characters, and because there are so many of them, I always have some I follow and find interesting. I don’t mind skimming some chapters as long as the rest of them are good. What other people wrote about editors is unfortunately true. On the other hand, sometimes I go back to these chapters later and discover something interesting in them.

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