Through Fiery Trials, David Weber (Tor Books 978-0765325594, $28.99, 752pp, hc) January 2019.
I’m not so much looking forward to what David Weber does next. Reading his work has become something of an ordeal. And yet it remains an ordeal to which I’ve willingly subjected myself many times over – at least ten times, in the case of his Safehold series, of which the most recent instalment is Through Fiery Trials.
Through Fiery Trials takes place after the end of the great Holy War that’s convulsed Safehold for over a decade. The Church of Charis and the original Mother Church have come to a settlement, but war – and the innovations that immortal, not-exactly-still-human-on-every-level Merlin Athrawes has encouraged the already-innovative Charisians to develop – have proven disruptive on social and economic, as well as military levels. The early deaths of several significant political figures have a further destabilising influence, and Merlin and Charis are both staring down a deadline to a prophecy of the “Archangels’ return” – the archangels being the very human, technologically advanced people that established Safehold and its invented religion something close to a thousand years previously. Through Fiery Trials‘s 800-odd pages span something close to 16 years and encompass a cast of characters large enough to require a lengthy dramatis personae – although my copy doesn’t include one.
Weber’s dialogue has grown less and less readable over the years, though his ability to describe the technical details of various pieces of engineering remains surprisingly compelling. (Even if one is frequently driven to wonder but what’s the point?) His attitude towards gender and sexuality remains at best well meaning but confused: Through Fiery Trials has at least one paragraph whose only purpose is to assure readers that a certain character has always been and will always be heterosexual, even though they have changed their physical sexual characteristics, and to position as unthinkable the idea that two women might be interested in each other romantically. It’s something of an unnecessary exclusionary note. Through Fiery Trials provides additional evidence towards the thesis that Weber has abandoned any allegiance towards the notion that a novel should possess a narrative structure: instead, like a history composed in vignettes, the reader is dipped in and out of various Important Turning Points and Significant Conversations that do not link together into a coherent overall dramatic arc. (The difference between history and fiction is that fiction ought to make sense, they say.) Youthful – and not-so-youthful – politically significant characters are paired off and married off with what seems like indecent haste. Politically important babies are born all over the place. The principle of informed medical consent is in several places ignored, especially with regard to said babies. Weber indulges his skill for writing state funerals and for writing quasi-Christian religious sermons with abandon.
And yet, I willingly subjected myself to this. There’s a strange appeal here, one that carries the reader though 800-odd pages: though Weber no longer writes anything like a character arc for any of his characters, he writes many competent characters, who mean well and who strive to do good – to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost. Competence and personal ethics are deeply appealing. And Weber’s approach to writing faith – and writing about faith and the problem of evil – remains interesting. I’m not sure I’d recommend the Safehold series, but if you’re already reading it? You know what to expect from Through Fiery Trials.
Unless you’re expecting a conclusion. You won’t get one here.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.
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