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Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Midst Toil and Tribulation" by David Weber (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: "Midst Toil and Tribulation" (MT&T or MTAT in fan jargon) is the sixth installment in the Safehold Saga of David Weber which is now projected to be an eleven volume series. After the somewhat disappointing How Firm a Foundation (HFAF), I was wondering if Mr. Weber will continue on what I saw as a path of "diminishing returns" that sadly many long series take, when they repeat and repeat their best moments, or if, as he did quite a few times in the Honorverse, he will find a way to rejuvenate the series and get "new stuff" going and make what is clearly becoming a full planetary conflict fresh and interesting again...

While technically science fiction and indeed quite sf-nal in ethos, "Safehold" is much closer to epic fantasy in theme and world building. If Off Armageddon Reef (OAR) had as main focus adventure and naval battles, By Schism Rent Asunder (BSRA) intrigue and revelations, By Heresies Distressed (BHD) land war and consolidation, A Mighty Fortress (AMF) faith and the second round of all-out naval battles, How Firm a Foundation a lull in the action and more setup with a bit of "Empire Strikes Back" in it, Midst Toil and Tribulation is back to full scale conflict, on land, on sea and on rivers and canals...

Note that I presented an extended overview of the series and its main characters in earlier reviews, so I assume people are familiar with them here.

ANALYSIS: Reading How Firm a Foundation, I was wondering if David Weber's decision to change focus from a multi-generational saga leading to the final confrontation to the Gbaba (afaik that was the original pitch of the series) to a series focused on the transformation of Safehold in detail, so having each volume span a year or less and cover all the facets of the titanic struggle between the reformist Empire and Church of Charis and the establishment led by the Group of Four and the fearsome Grand Inquisitor  Clyntahn, would not make me lose interest as the story seemed more bounded than I usual tend to like.

Midst Toil and Tribulation reiterated why David Weber is my top favorite author of today since it was a book that hit the perfect balance between novelty and continuity of older themes, between introducing and/or emphasizing new characters, and developing older ones, as well as having a great mix of intrigue, technological development and battles with a last 150 pages or so of non-stop, must turn them as fast as one can to see what happens, action on multiple fronts.

Midst Toil and Tribulation is the beginning of the next chapter in the struggle and ends at a good TBC point but begging for more asap. As expected from the early snippets, MT&T clearly establishes the series as one of total planetary action with characters and action starting to be spread out everywhere, all of course within the context of the great struggle for the soul of the "new" humanity on Safehold.

The novel has a lot of great scenes, many of them centered on faith and how each individual approaches his or her relationship with God. As sf tends to be agnostic and even straight-out atheistic with only some exceptions, Safehold is worth reading even only to show how you can write great stories where faith is central to story; here I would like to note that both the most admired and the most hated characters of Safehold are priests in Maikel Staynair and Clyntahn respectively.

After the first five volumes and a reputation for dumbness, who knew that Allayn Maigwair could be a competent army builder? Well, now we know and while this does not bode well for the Empire, it may bode even worse for Clyntahn himself as the usual tensions between the secret police and the military in a brutal repressive regime could surface here too; when the military lost as the Church navy tended to do, well it could not do too much against the Inquisition, but when it wins...

The book
adds lots of little details that may or may not turn important later, while a few decisions from earlier novels pay dividends here; for example it is useful to have princes and princess of the line, even adopted ones, for alliance through marriage purposes...

As there are around 900 named characters in the table at the end, 41 pages with about 22 people on the page, the naming conventions still alternate between having fun decoding them as for example only in this volume I got the meaning of the name of Clynthan's right hand, Reyno and pure annoyance and frustrations at all the z's, h's and y's... 

There is a long glossary and a few more tidbits about the history of Safehold and its religious orders, so Midst Toil and Tribulation clocks at about 540 pages of actual text out of 600+ total. To follow the multi-front action, the included maps are a must, but the detailed online map linked also above is excellent and as you can zoom in and out at quite a high resolution, I strongly recommend using it during your read. And as a final note, a much loved character returns!

Overall, Midst Toil and Tribulation is excellent storytelling, compelling, impossible to put down, with manageable info dumps that are easy to skim for the essentials and completing the evolution of the series to its second level - all around planetary conflict. A clear top 10 of mine for 2012  and restoring Safehold to the top of the ongoing sff series.


Jack McCrary said...

While I think that you are right with most of your high points, for me the majority of this novel felt like publisher-forced padding to grow the total number of volumes in the series. I like sf/alti-history/fantasy battle porn as much as th next person, but the page count devoted to it in this book is well north of gratuitous. In particular, except for the last few mandatory pages covering the strategic recap and the forced-feeling "emotional toll of war" pages, the last half of the book was sorely lacking in anything but battle porn.

Liviu said...

I disagree at least regarding "publisher-padding" as DW has already more to tell than the number of books contracted - there is a Polish interview I linked here:

in which DW explains his plans, but the gist is that there are 11 books contracted for Safehold to date (this is #6) and he plans somewhere from 11-13, all with Cayleb and co though maybe not all with Clynthan, and that number may grow in telling, while he is not yet decided how to deal with the Gbaba (epilogue, epilog book, series) as he is already 60 this year etc

If there is someone to "blame" for the global, let's see all that happens on Safehold, style of the books, it is DW himself and while in HFaF it did not work as well as before for me, here it worked for some reason

Liviu said...

and to add a little more, if there is a place where one can make an argument about "padding for publishing reasons" is in the Honorverse books as the recent 3 main books (MoH, ART and SoF) could have easily being written as 2 but I believe there were good thematic reasons (not least the stunning endings in MoH and SoF and the pretty good suspenseful one in ART) to believe DW when he argues on those grounds

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