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Off Armageddon Reef    by David Weber order for
Off Armageddon Reef
by David Weber
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Paperback, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

David Weber has long been amongst the top writers of military SF for his hugely popular Honor Harrington series. Now he launches what promises to be an exciting new epic with Off Armageddon Reef - whose opening salvo leaves humanity on the brink of extinction by the ruthless alien Gbaba.

Earth destroyed, the remnants of the human race flee thousands of light years away to settle a planet they call Safehold. Knowing that the Gbaba will be seeking energy emissions, the organizers have most of the settlers' memories altered so that they believe in a religion, the Church of God Awaiting, which forbids innovation, to prevent advancement beyond a preelectric technology. The idea was to create a safe haven for mankind to repopulate under the radar of their enemy, until it is deemed safe to 'move back into interstellar flight.' However, as always when more than two people are involved, there are diverging views on how to accomplish those goals. The leaders, who have established themselves as archangels on Safehold, violently disagree on the details, leading to war in the heavens - and the most conservative approach prevails.

Before going down in flames, the more liberal archangels put one of their own in play for a role in moulding Safehold's future. Lieutenant Commander Nimue Alban of the Federation Navy awakens to find herself (at least a stored version of herself as the original died in the last battle against the Gbaba) a Personality-Integrated Cybernetic Avatar (PICA) whose intended role is to be an immortal advisor to the colony. She begins by inserting herself into the affairs of Charis, a seafaring kingdom with a just and wise ruler, King Haarahld, and a habit of innovation. Modifying the PICA to a male form, Nimue starts by saving Crown Prince Cayleb from an assassination attempt and uncovering a traitor close to the throne. She tells the king her advance knowledge was gained from visions, and becomes Merlin Athrawes, the Prince's companion and a member of his guard.

Charis is surrounded by enemies and under suspicion from church leaders. It becomes a race between Merlin's carefully introduced innovations - including the abacus, a cotton ginny, improved gunpowder, and galleon redesigns - and a consolidation of a church-led alliance against the small kingdom. When fleets are dispatched to destroy Charis, its navy fights sea battles against overwhelming odds, but (thanks to Merlin) with faster ships, much greater firepower, and the benefit of Merlin's visions (based on satellite technology) for battle strategy. And as David Weber wages his war on Off Armageddon Reef's pages, he has fun with Merlin's plagiarism of lines from Old Earth's history, such as 'Charis expects that every man will do his duty.'

While many story threads are not new to SF (in particular I recall a Golden Age tale, possibly by Poul Andersen, of a time traveler saving a small, beleagured nation by reinventing gunpowder and other technology), David Weber writes a compelling arc with appealing characters, and he does a very nice job of integrating the Merlin myth into his story. This first episode ends with battles won, but many good people lost, and many more fights ahead against daunting odds. I'm looking forward to following this entertaining new series and seeing both the evolution of technology and of the Camelot legend on Safehold.

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