What with one thing and another, about eight years have passed since the events of Dies the Fire, the opening novel of S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series. That story is reasonably self-contained, and tells the tale of how different groups cope with the Change (See “Fantasy Literature: 6:15 pm PST, March 17, 1998 — TEOTWAWKI & Dies the Fire,” here).
The primary challenge is finding, then growing and harvesting enough to eat; all other challenges relate to that one. Fighting off people who want to steal the food (and/or consider people to be mobile Soylent Green), finding a place to settle where one can grow food in safety, discovering and carrying out the ways and means of becoming muscle-powered farmers, and so on. The villain of the series, Norman Arminger, is introduced and fought through proxies, such as Dies the Fire‘s “Duke Iron Rod.”
But the novel’s title, The Protector’s War, is a cheat. Pick it up and you’re holding the second novel in a series but more particularly you’re holding the first half of a duology, for the long-promised Protector’s War begins, but at a low intensity.
The factions are now clearer and better resolved. Juniper Mackenzie — dubbed Lady Juniper by her followers, half in jest at first but now in utter seriousness, especially by the generation that has lived half its life after the Change, can muster several thousand kilt-wearin’, longbow-shootin’ sho’ nuff faux-Celts. It is refreshing, in a way, for an author such as Stirling to be free to present a faux-Celts cultural mishmash as exactly what it is. More often, in Fantasy Literature, such mishmashery is presented as the real thing (in some imagined historical Emerald Isle or Highlands) or as the real thing (in some wholly imaginary setting). Brave, I’m looking at you here, because you’re the easy target, but examples abound. Oh, you want examples?
Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels. Deemed “historical fantasy,” I found this series very enjoyable. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon & Co. Cherryh’s The Dreaming Tree. Katherine Kerr. OK, just Google “celtic fantasy” and be done wondering: it is a popular sub-genre. And we won’t even get started on how Dungeons & Dragons spawned countless fictionalized medieval Englands (and Frances).
Stirling’s act of genius in his Emberverse novels is this: he gets to present faux-Celts in all their glory and bad Actor’s Equity accents (“The engines can’t take no more, Captain!”) while at the same time exercising a hard-headed, science-fictional attitude about how this all came about. Sure, he leans on the Luck — as I’ve argued previously, that could be “magic” at work — but Stirling is careful to provide reasoning for everything he presents.
Do people adopt atrocious accents? Yes. Do people imitate the language patterns of those in authority? Yes they do (Linguist Nerds, to the fore!). So if Juniper Mackenzie (herself, herself) was raised by an Achill Islander mother and had some of the old accent, she came by it honestly. If during her early career as a musician she played up that accent, she did that honestly, too. Her people slavishly imitate her, some in jest and some not, and as time goes on, that aspect of Clan Mackenzie becomes ordinary and expected.
Stirling, in essence, gets to spoon the Celtic honey into the mouths of his readers, all the while keeping a straight face and an honest demeanor.
Another example of Stirling’s technique is obvious in the Bearkillers. Lead by the father of Juniper’s boy Rudi (now some eight years old), Mike Havel (who kills a bear hand-to-hand in Dies the Fire, hence the Outfit’s name) works with a horse trainer who happens to have a book about horse archers. They adopt this cultural mode of warfare (worked for the Hun/Mongols/Steppes Peoples of your choice!) and by the events of The Protector’s War have some 300 of these elite mounted troops, along with more ordinary pike, crossbow, and artillery types (catapults, of course, not cannon).
Today one can watch thrilling YouTube videos of Lajos Kassai shooting from horseback, much as the Bearkiller’s A-List do in the Emberverse. Havel, though, is a Marine. And as he forms the Outfit he recruits other Marines and sundry ex-military. They in turn inform the culture of the Bearkillers and in particular the military aspect of their group. Anyone can train for and take the challenging physical tests to become an A-Lister:
Not far away a section of newly mustered military apprentices were starting to sweat their way towards the coveted A-list status, stretching, tumbling and running courses in weighted armor, working out with free weights or practicing stances before some tall mirrors. A dozen more staggered in from the ever-loathed cross-country run in armor and pack; that included a trip up and down the steep scarp behind Larsdalen, popularly known as “Satan’s Staircase.”
Havel grinned nostalgically as he listened to the distance-muffled scream of the training-cadre instructors: “. . .stop puking, Apprentice Latterby! You can puke on your own time! You make me want to puke, the way you’ll bring disgrace on my beloved Outfit! You idle little maggots aren’t home on Daddy’s manor anymore! Bearkillers can fight on horseback, on foot, or while we f—ing swim and we don’t get tired. The enemy gets tired and then we kill their sorry ass. Move! Move!”
It took him back — back to Parris Island….
Stirling seems to delight in crafting these hybrid cultures, and he takes full opportunity to do so in the context of the Change. And lest we begin to think he is all about historical models of military units and moving them about the map board that is the Pacific Northwest, let us at least mention the Dunedain Rangers. After the change, Mike Havel saved the Larssens. He marries one of them, Signe. Signe’s sister, Astrid, is a huge Lord of the Rings fan (oh, NOW you remember “Dunedain,” do you?), and the same age as Juniper Mackenzie’s daughter, Eilir. Well, if Norman Arminger can recreate, ah, Norman knights (sorry), and the Mackenzies can make Longbowmen (and women), and the Bearkillers can do their Steppes Horse thing, why can’t Astrid and Eilir create the Dunedain?
If you’re S. M. Stirling, the answer is “why wouldn’t I?” Astrid Larsson makes Sindarin the native tongue of the Dunedain. Eilir Mackenzie provides incentive for them all to learn sign language, a very useful skill for those who love to skulk unseen (and unheard) in the wilderness. They set up shop deep in the woods and sell their services as caravan guards, and of course they’re excellent scouts. Tolkien’s masterworks are referred to as “the histories.”
In short, Stirling not only gets to do faux-Celtic honestly, he gets to do faux-Tolkien honestly, too.
In the main sub-plot of the novel, Stirling introduces an Englishman, Sir Nigel Loring, on the outs with crazed King Charles (crazy for blondes!) who escapes England on a New Zealand ship touring the world carrying out a special mission. While high-energy technologies no longer work, stockpiles of deadly chemical agents still present a threat. Loring joins the effort to locate and destroy such stockpiles, using special protective gear. No evil overlord worth his salt would pass up a chance to get his paws on such weapons of mass destruction, for in a world where muscle-powered combat is the norm, a little nerve gas goes a long way.
Of course the New Zealand ship and Sir Nigel come calling on Portland, and Norman Arminger falls over himself to make nice. The good Sir Nigel sees through Arminger and makes his escape. But does he foil the Protector’s plans to acquire militarily useful amounts of nerve gas?
[Spoiler warning.] The reader finds out toward the end of The Protector’s War, during a raid conducted by the PPA intended to recover the Protector’s daughter from the Mackenzies:
Liu’s smile was white in the dimness, framed by his darkened helmet. “Yeah, Ms. Witch, hold it. ‘Cause I brought some Raid on this raid.” He flourished the pistollike apparatus. “We’ve all got the antidote. But funny, we didn’t give any to Junior here. So if I start spraying this stuff, chances are he may catch some. And it doesn’t take much, you know? I got some friends arriving soon, like in minutes, and then we’ll all take a ride. And you can send an ambassador to see how your kid is getting on, hey?”
Juniper cast desperate eyes aside at Nigel Loring. He spoke without moving his lips. “Probably not. There wasn’t much of the real agent left. But he may have it in that.”
But Baron Liu’s friends aren’t arriving soon, and a standoff develops. Liu threatens Rudi, Juniper’s son. His mother steps forward and speaks:
“You won’t harm my son,” Juniper said, amazed at the calm strength of her own voice. “You know what would happen to you if you did.”
“If I go down, I take your kid with me,” Liu said. “I figure that’ll hurt you worse than killing you would, and bitch, I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”
Juniper sheathed her sword and raised her hands, and her voice tolled in the flame-shot night: “Eddie Liu, Katrina Georges. I curse you, now; in the name of the Dark Goddess, by the power of the Dread Lord. I curse you in their names and mine, and that curse is this: Death not long delayed. So mote it be!”
No stroke of lightning falls from the sky. Remember, this is not “wiggle the fingers, say the magic word” magic. The Protector’s henchman Baron Liu scoffs that the mojo only works if you believe in it. When he tries to leave, using Rudi as a shield, Juniper Mackenzie orders her people to intervene, knowing as she does so that Liu may well have a squirtgun full of nerve gas:
Then, in a high clear shout: “Take them!”
Hanging back was the hardest thing she had ever forced herself to do, but she was no more than a middling hand with a sword, and this was far too dangerous for bows. All she could do would be get in the way of those who might save her son. Liu’s hand moved, and a stream struck Rudi’s neck and the side of his face; he cried out and twisted in the man’s hands. Liu shot again, quick as a striking snake, and droplets of the same heavy, oily liquid landed on her face; it had a nasty chemical stink, and the drops itched and burned… and the night did not darken, and her chest continued to pump in hard quick breaths.
After the nerve gas proves to be impotent, it is all done except for the sword-work:
“A Loring! A Loring!” Nigel shouted as he went forward with darting speed. Not quite in time, for Mack’s first stroke was straight down at Rudi’s young body.
A desperate leap put Nigel’s shield above the boy, but the four-foot blade of the greatsword cut three-quarters of the way through the tough laminate of wood and metal, and broke the arm below it. Mack’s steel-splinted boot stamped on the blade of the Englishman’s sword and snapped it across, and the next blow sent his sallet helm spinning off into the darkness. Nigel Loring slumped backward, blood running from nose and eyes and mouth, motionless.
The Mackenzies were throwing themselves desperately at the ring of swords now, shrieking and sheerly mad, but many hadn’t had time to don their brigandines, and the knights were sheathed in mail and splints of hard metal from ankle to head, armored cap-a-pie. Arminger’s men stood shield-to-shield and cast back their rush..
“Father!” Alleyne Loring cried.
“No! Mine!” a deep bass voice bellowed, and John Hordle’s bastard sword hammered its way past a shield and sent a man reeling, then turned the stroke of Mack’s blade with a grunt of effort, a harsh clangor in the night and a stream of sparks. Alleyne tried to use the moment to take the troll-man from behind, but Katrina Georges was suddenly between them, a sword in one hand, a long knife in the other. The circle of shields was breaking up into combats that raged through the flame-shot darkness, two against one, a pair against three.
Eilir was there too, light glittering from eyes gone huge in a face bone-white pale, shining ruddy-bright on teeth bared in a silent gape as she turned the stroke of Liu’s bao on her buckler and struck, struck …
Magic or not, the bad guys’ deaths are not long delayed.
This sort of small unit action is what the reader finds in The Protector’s War. For the war itself, war with the crash of open battle, see A Meeting at Corvallis.
So far we’ve covered the following S. M. Stirling novels in this series:
Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity
Dies the Fire
The Protector’s War
A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 1
A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 2
The Peshawar Lancers and Conquistador
The Sunrise Lands
The Scourge of God
The Sword of the Lady, Part 1
The Sword of the Lady, Part 2
The High King of Montival
The Tears of the Sun
Lord of Mountains
The Given Sacrifice and The Golden Princess
Edward Carmien is a writer and scholar firmly in the orbit of the fantastic. He’s spent some of his recreational time learning skills useful in the fantasy milieu: he can ride a horse (poorly), shoot a bow (badly), hike long distances in the wilderness (pretty well), do others injury with the art of the empty hand (nowadays, who knows, he’s got five decades now…), operate small watercraft, and so on. Tabletop wargaming, gaming, computer gaming, CCG gaming, and cooking are some of his other pursuits.
A member of the SFWA and the SFRA, he writes (not enough), teaches (full time), parents, and husbands in and about Princeton, NJ. Check out his many crimes and misdemeanors in the fantasy field at edwardcarmien.com.