My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This series has rapidly shot up my list to being one of my favorites in science fiction.
I first came to Stirling’s work with Draka!, and have long been impressed by his incredibly deep knowledge of military history and tactics. That he manages to apply them so brilliantly to both fantasy and science fiction is what elevates his books from simply “good” to “great”.
Off Armageddon Reef is the first in his Safehold series, wherein humanity has lost a titanic struggle against a horrifically powerful alien race known only as the Gbaba. In a last-ditch attempt to preserve the species, they found a colony in the far reaches of space, and a faction of that colony’s administration makes the decision to establish a theocratic society with strict proscriptions against any and all advanced technology that might someday betray the colony’s location to the powers that nearly drove mankind to extinction.
What is most remarkable about this book is that, in the course of its narrative, it manages to raise a great many questions about the nature of religion and society from our own history. The theocratic society that Stirling constructs bears a great many similarities to the pre-Enlightenment approach to scientific innovation. That this is surely by design doesn’t lessen its impact. Conspiracy theorists would surely gobble this book up, as one could easily take it as an alternate reading of human history on Earth. The course followed by the faction of colonists who choose to eliminate all technology from the world they’re building echoes the Genesis narrative in a way that fans of Ancient Aliens would love.
This book really has everything, from rousing adventure to personal exploration and the best modern adaptation of Arthurian myth that you could hope to find. The series’ protagonist, a digitally reincarnated consciousness going by the name Merlin Athrawes, is exactly the sort of character you’d hope for with a name like. He is witty, fabulously intelligent, and brings with a vibe not unlike that of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. Happily, Stirling resists the urge to make him truly omnipotent, which would be far-too-easy for an android in a pre-tech society. He justifies all of Merlin’s vulnerabilities, both physical and mental, within the prose. This effort is well worth it, as it rounds him into a character whom the reader can truly identify with, as opposed to a walking deus ex machina.
While this is only the first installment in the series, it is also a complete work on it’s own. Every character we meet has a specific arc which they follow, growing and changing throughout the story. While there are certainly threads left dangling for future installments, nothing feels unfinished in a way that diminishes the satisfaction of reaching the end.
If you like swashbuckling adventure that blurs the line between science and sorcery, this is a book you’ll absolutely love.
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