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