Off Armageddon Reef is one of those rare books that mix sci-fi and fantasy well and in the right amount. The use of both elements is well explained and justified. The sci-fi aspect of the book comes through history, the setting, and transformation. It has a significant role in world-building and motivations for the story. The fantasy element is the world with its krakens, lizard monsters, and swords. It’s where the characters interact. The fantasy period is hard to define. It’s not medieval, nor is it yet the era of the Industrial Revolution. Maybe it mimics our 17th century.
So what is the book about? The human race is almost wiped out by a mysterious, aggressive alien race, Gbaba. The remaining humans have settled into an Earth-like planet, Safehold. The only catch is that they cannot use technology as it’s the way Gbaba can detect them. So the leaders of the last space fleet built a religion that forbids sinful technology. They wiped the memory of the first settlers and installed them this image of a world order where the church has a final saying of how things proceed. Christianity heavily influenced the used religion. All this is revealed on the first pages (80+), which are full of world-building and setting up the stakes as Weber has a habit of doing. Weber writes this weird mix of world-building and dialogue-driven text. He loves info-dumps. Weber is meticulous in his logic. Thusly, the first pages were a chore to get through. At times, the entire book was. He tells the story from multiple perspectives, concentrating on the political aspects of what is going on. For example, there’s no hint of romance.
The book’s central characters are King Haarahld and Crown Prince Cayleb, who are somewhat progressive when it comes to technology. Their country, Charis, is an old pirate nation that has gone legitimate. They are a great naval power, and some of the other countries see them as a thread. Thusly, there are political schemes against them. King Haarahld and Crown Prince Cayleb both represent the fantasy side of the book. I liked them. They are the leaders most of us would want to run our countries. But as characters, they are functional, serving the story. Still, they have personality and history, but it’s this mechanical kind, as if Weber made a list of characteristics a good protagonist should have and what appeals to the reader and made them from that mold. So I found it hard to form an attachment to them. Then we have their trusted advisor, Merlin. S/he (Merlin is a male, but Nimue is a woman) is an android who has former Lieutenant Commander Nimue Alban’s humanity dashed into the body. Her goal is to crumble the power the Church of God Awaiting has on Safehold, and she uses Haarahld and Cayleb for that. We get to live through her eyes and hear her inner thoughts, unlike with other characters we flip through. I like her. She brings the philosophical aspect to book. She asks questions like should religion hold power over politics? What should be the right call for humanity? Is it inevitable for religion to have a conflict with technology? Plus, does power corrupt? Do leaders forget why they are in their position or not? What makes a good leader? She feels more like a love child of idea a writer has for a central character, a tad less mechanical than Cayleb and Haarahld and other characters (priests, political opponents, trusted commanders, and so on.) Following her actions was the best part of the story.
I have mixed feelings about the book. While I love the concept and how Weber uses fantasy and sci-fi together, the book often feels mechanical in how I already described it with the characters. Also, to enjoy the book, you have to like world-building. It’s the most crucial aspect of the story. It’s where Weber shines. Weber is a prolific military sci-fi writer and has defined the genre. He’s very set in his writing style, and the quality of his work is always high, and the series and books long. However, I’m not entirely sure he’s a writer for me. There’s something in his books that isn’t for me. I love the concepts he plays with, the questions he asks through his writing, with other series he plays with our history in space (evil empires and whatnot), but I need the messy bits if that makes sense at all. All that said, Off Armageddon Reef is a good book. It dares to concentrate on politics and building this strange universe. I do not know where the second book will lead. Most likely, it’s a grand installment, and at some point, there will be space battles with Gbaba. That’s my guess. I’ll find out.
Thank you for reading and have a great day!