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Monday, April 12, 2010

"A Mighty Fortress" by David Weber (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official David Weber Website
Order "A Mighty Fortress" HERE
Read FBC Review of By Schism Rent Asunder
Read FBC Review of By Heresies Distressed
Read FBC Interview with David Weber

"A Mighty Fortress" is the fourth installment in the Safehold Saga of David Weber and after finishing it I could say that Safehold has become my co-#1 ongoing sff series alongside Honor Harrington. 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 had as main focus adventure and naval battles, By Schism Rent Asunder intrigue and revelations, By Heresies Distressed land war and consolidation, A Mighty Fortress is about faith and then later it goes full circle to the second round of all-out naval battles.

Since I talked at length about the setting and characters in my reviews of volumes 2 and 3 linked above, while the author talked at length about the series in my interview with him, here I will assume familiarity with the context and the main characters and discuss how
"A Mighty Fortress" takes Safehold towards uncharted territory and possibly a reinterpretation of what we think we know.

"A Mighty Fortress" stands at about 700 pages including maps, glossary of characters and some discussion about Safehold's characteristics. There are several threads and tens of POV's, including pretty much all the surviving ones from previous volumes, some of whom did not appear in By Heresies Distressed.

Young Paytir Wylsynn, the former Inquisition Intendant of Charis whose interview of Merlin was so memorable in volume one and who now currently occupies a similar position under
the leader of the reformed Church, Archbishop Maikel, and former Bishop Executor of Charis Zherald Ahdymsyn whose relatively mild "admonitions" of Maikel for sedition were another fun part of volume one and who is now a "roving troubleshooter" Bishop of the reformed Church are two of my most favorite characters who reappear quite memorably here.

Outside Merlin, Cayleb, Sharleyan and The Group of Four, there are three characters that have lots of pages somewhat unexpectedly: the Earl of Coris - guardian of
Dayvin, the young prince of Corisande in exile - who is summoned to the Temple in Zion for loyalty assessment, General Koryn Gahvrai, former CO of the Corisandian Army and now commander of the Regency Council's armed forces under Charisian supervision and Archbishop Zhasyn Cahnyr of Glacierheart and junior member of the reformist Circle who as we may remember was the only one courageous enough to offer succor to Archbishop Erayk in the Temple prison before the latter's execution at the hands of the Inquisition, execution which was one the most emotional scenes in the second volume.

And not to forget the extraordinary Ahnzelyk Phonda, ultra successful businesswoman and secret leader of the reformist movement in Zion and the two leaders of the Circle, the Vicars Samyl - father of Paytir and foremost rival of Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn - and his brother Hauwerd Wylsynn who are also very important POV's of the novel.

As for classification "sff epic on the grandest scale" is the only one that does justice to this superb novel and series.

The titles of the Safehold novels are superb and revelatory at least so far, so when "A Mighty Fortress" was announced and before I knew anything else my first speculation was about what it means; the novel offers two answers, one textual and explicit, but also one subtler and implicit and which has actually been my first guess.

The textual answer which comes somewhere in the second half of the novel is that
"A Mighty Fortress" is formed by the Charisian fleet and the sailors and marines that man it. Facing the full wrath of the Group of Four, especially of the Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn who in this novel unleashes once and for all the full force of terror and this time being attacked by a "modern " comparable even if less experienced fleet that outnumbers the Imperial one by something like 3 to 1, fleet that is also much better led than in Off Armageddon Reef, it is up to the Navy of Charis to stop the enemy.

But the novel has also another answer for the title since based on the first half, I can argue that "A Mighty Fortress" refers also to the power of faith in God and here we finally get to actually experience it as the powerful force for good embodied in the true men and women of God from Charis, Corisande and even the corrupt Zion where the Inquisition may torture and murder the reformers and cow their highest level sympathizers temporarily into acquiescence if not submission, but the seeds of change have already been sown.

Between the two poles of religion and war, "A Mighty Fortress" offers a lot more. There is action galore in Corisande, Zion and on the seas, daring escapes, nasty conspirators, dastardly assassinations, one sword fight for the ages inside the Temple of all places, very, very emotional moments, tragedy and rejoicing, a tense dinner, lots of memorable lines and a baby...

As usual Merlin steals the show in all his apparitions and he has some of the best lines of the novel like the following description of his conversational start with a high ranking opponent in whose apartments the seijin breaks in at night to add more urgency to the respective character's intention to defect:

“I was simply attempting to establish the proper . . . collegial atmosphere.”

The one major surprise I had in
"A Mighty Fortress" was in the hints from the author about a possible reinterpretation of Safehold's past and the Church of God's Awaiting true roots and mission.

The ending is similarly emotional to the one in Off Armageddon Reef and while A Mighty Fortress is somewhat more open-ended than the first volume and several threads are left to be continued, there is a lot of closure too and again I cannot say I have a real inkling where the series will go next beyond a very general sense augmented by the twist hinted above.

For the tremendous enjoyment that "A Mighty Fortress" (A++) brought me so far on three full reads plus rereads of the other three volumes and for its great continual re-reed value, I think that this novel is the best sf and even possibly best sff I've read in 2010 so far. Just epic on the grandest scale with everything you want from such.


Dr. Debra Holland said...

I've never read this series. I'll have to pick up the first one.

Douglas Needham said...

As a long-time HH fan who just recently started the Safehold series, and is currently enthralled in Schisms, I have to say that I am looking forward to Fortress, and hope the library has it when I finish Heresies.

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe you actually read the book. It's slow, slow, slow. Did I mention it's slow? I've read the first 250 pages and boy is it slow. So far there have been 129 meetings about everything under the sun but no action. Well, that's fine if this was a book on how to fix flat tires. But that's not what it was suppose to be. It mentions plenty of great concepts but that's all it does, it mentions them. It's like one long endless office meeting. Or worse yet, the minutes of one long endless office meeting.

Liviu said...

Actually the first 21 chapters were snippeted and they are available here, so people can check them before getting the book:

I disagree with the slow comment since I really enjoyed the tension built-up in the beginning that starts exploding violently at some point; one thing though that I keep repeating is that in structure and characters, Safehold is as close to traditional epic fantasy as it gets so it is a change from the mil-space opera usually associated with Mr. Weber

Anonymous said...

If character development was the be all and end all of writing then why call it a fantasy novel or a SF novel at all? Why not call it a character sketch and be done with it? The essence of good fiction writing must involve at least some showing and not simply telling of what's important. Would it be asking too much to have your characters actually do something in the first 250 pages of a novel?

Anonymous said...

Please note,a lot of those guys were Politicians.

Anonymous said...

I read the first 3 books and really enjoyed them. The fourth is a bit slow - Weber seems to be trying to stretch things our by getting really descriptive about things and situations without adding to the story, character or setting. I have about 150 pages to go but have already decided to not proceed with the series - good premise but lotsa of words without much purpose.

Anonymous said...

A Mighty Fortress has everything that is wrong with Mr. Weber's writing these days. It is bloated, full of completely unnecessary and mindnumbing descriptions (yes, those meetings!) and characters that serves no purpose to the plot. The dialogue (internal and external) is cringe invoking and repetetive (If I read about one more person "chuckling with dry wit" I will scream!)

Anonymous said...

I just listened to A Mighty Fortress as an audio book. I was at a real disadvantage without the maps and other addenda that I see came with the book.

I agree that the book was over long. Detailed descriptions of servants, up-and coming officers, minor priests were really unnecessary. If I hear "Truth to tell", "Quite frankly" and especially "On the other hand" again I think I'll scream.

I really love this series, but think that the bloat needs to disappear.

Perhaps DW should bring in someone like John Ringo to get the series back on line (The Prince Roger Series was great.)

Finally, what ever happened to the alien threat that caused the formation of Safehold in the beginning? Will the Safeholdians ever be ready to take them on?

Liviu said...

As for bloat, hard to say - I liked a lot of stuff here, the only thread I thought a bit unnecessary is the Coris one, though who knows where it goes next - DW has the habit of surprising people

On the other hand if you read Weberian forums (on the Bar or on his website) people complained about *how much* has not been shown in the books, so the book could have moved the action only half.

As for the Gbaba, right now I think that Safehold is scheduled to go this way for several more books and then I guess another series set some centuries in the future will deal with that. The original plan was one book per generation (eg OAR Haralhd, BSRA Cayleb, Book 3 Cayleb's children...) but plans changed

Anonymous said...

The book tries to be way too complicated and so holds no real story, David Weber makes the same mistake as he does in the later Honor books. He tries to cover too many angles and hence fails to tell any one well. Writing needs a focus and there is none in this book. I loved his earlier works but the sad story is Weber can't grasp is that longer and more details does not make his writing better. Very disappointing. :(


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