Fantasy Literature: A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 2 of 2

Fantasy Literature: A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 2 of 2

A Meeting at Corvallis-smallSpoilers throughout. Fair warning!

Welcome to Part 2 of my look at S. M. Stirling’s A Meeting at Corvallis. In Part 1, I took a look at some ninja-style action, at high-tech warfare (after the Change, that means “springs”), and suggested part of Stirling’s success with this Emberverse series is his ability to hybridize different literary elements. Here in Part 2 we start with a look at the movers and shakers in the series, with pithy observations attached….

Let’s take a look at the military (wo)men Stirling employs as major characters in the Emberverse. Mike Havel, for example, is a marine, force recon, a working-class guy who fought in the Gulf. Despite his long-held belief that unlike officers, NCO’s like him work for a living, he finds himself the boss of the Outfit, the Bearkillers.

Another faction leader is Abbot Dmwoski:

The abbot’s eyes were blue like those of his guest, but paler. They had a net of fine lines by their corners, and suddenly he was convinced that the man had come late to a cleric’s calling; those were marksman’s eyes. Nigel judged him to be around forty, or perhaps a little older if the tonsure in his coal-black hair was part-natural. A strong, close-shaved jowl was turned blue by a dense beard of the same color.

Nigel himself, while not a faction leader, becomes closely allied with Juniper Mackenzie. He was a Colonel in the Special Air Service (SAS), instrumental in getting Prince soon to be King Charles out of London after the Change, and in a small world sort of way well known to Sam Aylward, the Mackenzie’s master bowman.

Aylward, hunting the day of the change in the forest near Juniper Mackenzie’s cabin, was also in the SAS. His knowledge of how to make and use bows helped the Mackenzies survive and become a faction; Lady Juniper’s luck made available a few tons of seasoned yew necessary for bow production. His hard-headed military sense also informed the early training of the Dunedain.

S. M. Stirling Dies The Fire-smallThe Rangers, lead by Astrid Larsson and Eilir Mackenzie, do not feature ex-military at the top of their organization — up to the point that Astrid pairs with Alleyne Loring (he’s bodacious cute AND speaks Sindarin, making this coupling inevitable). Sir Nigel’s son holds military rank, though much of his military experience is post-Change. Eilir Mackenzie isn’t left out, however. John Hordle, who joined the SAS because the somewhat older Sam Aylward told him rousing tales of it, is also a military man. The Dunedain, therefore, end up with military men at the top of their organization chart as well.

The city-state of Corvallis is led by the Faculty Senate, as the city came through the change thanks to the leadership of that august group. While the Protector’s wife, Sandra Arminger, aptly nicknamed “the spider” has made it politically difficult for Corvallis to send troops to fight the PPA, Edward Finney, a twenty-year Air Force veteran, helps lead a volunteer force of Corvallan pike and crossbow troops, saving Mike Havel and the Bearkillers from a long, deadly day of battle and managing at least a draw for the entire spring campaign for the good guys.

“Edward Finney,” the other man said, offering a hand in a metal gauntlet.

He was in his late forties, stocky and weathered, wearing first-class armor — breast-and-back of overlapping articulated plates, lobster-style, mail-and-plate leggings and arm-guards, a visored helmet on his head — with a sword at his hip and a long war-hammer slung over one shoulder. It wasn’t gear Havel would have cared to wear on horseback, but from the weapon that wasn’t the way he fought, either, and the horse was for mobility. Two much younger men with a strong family resemblance and similarly armed rode behind him, probably his sons. An even younger woman followed — barely old enough to take the field — in lighter gear, with a trumpet and a crossbow slung over her back.

“Ah, you’re a friend of Juney’s,” Havel said. A mental file clicked: Big yeoman farmer down south of Corvallis city, the son of old Luther. Influential guy. “So, the Faculty Senate finally got its collective thumb out?”

“Nope,” Finney and Jones said together. The farmer shrugged and signed the soldier to go on. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in turn. “That back there is the First Corvallis Volunteers; two thousand of them, half crossbows, half pikes and heavy infantry, a couple dozen mounted scouts. Could have had more, but we didn’t want to wait, since that message you read on your veranda the other day sounded pretty time-constrained. It was obvious Turner and Kowalski would keep the Senate chasing round in circles and biting its own ass with amendments to secondary clauses to reports of special committees on the Whichness of the Wherefore, so we convened an overnight emergency session of the Popular Assembly — your man Hugo helped a lot getting the word around quick. That man’s got contacts!”

“The Assembly can’t declare war or order mobilization,” Havel said, surprised. At least, if I know as much about the way Corvallis is set up as I think I do.

“But it can authorize people to go off as volunteers without a declaration of war.”

The Protector's WarAlthough Jones is in command, it is clear that without Finney, two thousand Corvallan volunteers would not have shown up and saved the day during the spring campaign.

Civilian leaders are not universally damned in Stirling’s work, however. Juniper Mackenzie is thoroughly a civilian, and while she dons fighting gear and leads from the front in time of need, she relies on Aylward the Archer to handle military affairs.

But civilian leaders in general don’t shine in Stirling’s post-apocalyptic world. While the Corvallan faculty senate lead that city through the Change, in these latter years, facing the PPA, they are more warmed by thought of profit than chilled by fear of the PPA’s naughty feudalism. Immediately after the change, the civilian government in Salem attempted to save everyone and had to be resisted by those out living on the land. The Sheriffs from cow country to the east aren’t generally seen as effective, aside from managing their own affairs, as they are slow to act in concert.

A military background, then, provides the necessary stuff of good leadership in Stirling’s post-apocalyptic setting. It is interesting to note that there are no examples of “military officers gone bad” in the Emberverse. And while there are plenty of women in armor — Signe Havel (formerly Larssen) fights side by side with Mike as they take down a bandit chief in The Protector’s War — all of them come to their military aspect after the Change. Indeed, the two most puissant (hardly ever get to use that in a sentence) warriors of the time are Astrid Larssen and Tiphaine Rutherton, dubbed Lady D’ath by the Protector himself after she rescues his daughter and kidnaps Juniper Mackenzie’s son. And ultimately neither of these deadly women exercised leadership at the “save the people” level–only Juniper Mackenzie carries that honor.

That the “witch queen” as those who fear and/or don’t understand Juniper call her is central to the Emberverse and the series of novels is irrefutable. While Dies the Fire opens with the future Bearkiller Lord, Mike Havel, flying the Larssens to their remote vacation spread, and then managing to crash land safely after the Change renders his light aircraft a nose-heavy glider, and while Havel plays a key role throughout these first three novels in the Emberverse, Juniper Mackenzie is the true focus. Havel solves the problem of how to handle the PPA and its naughty evil little boy leader Norman Arminger; the good guys prevail. But this is not Tolkien; the PPA are not orcs, and Stirling’s relentless adherence to the real in his fabulation requires a better solution than “we use some trick and kill them all and throw down the PPA forever.”

The Sunrise Lands-smallIt is too easy to imagine that Stirling follows closely in the post-Vietnam “remasculinazation” conducted by authors like Pournelle and Drake. The military men of the Emberverse lead the primary warring factions, but die doing so. The military women don’t, and the civilian, or at least non-overtly militarized women leaders find a peaceful accord and improve post-Change human rights in the Pacific Northwest, too. Students, see Tim Blackmore’s work “Hot For War: Jerry Pournelle and David Drake’s Regendered Battlefield” (War, Literature, and the Arts) for more of the critical background I allude to here. Suffice to say Stirling takes great pains to present his female characters in an equal light. How deep this presentation goes is a question for the reader to contemplate, but no matter how deep it goes, in my experience teaching a few of Stirling’s Emberverse novels, his even-handedness appeals to women.

As is the rule in series fiction, Stirling must lead us into desire for the next story. At a ceremony in the nemed, the Mackenzie’s holy grove (planted, luckily, some hundred years before by one of Juniper’s ancestors), magic rears its head, a promise and a lure:

She looked up sharply at the ahhhhs that ran around the Circle. A raven came out of the western light, first a dot and then a wingspan wider than she’d ever seen in that breed.

It circled over their heads and landed on the altar itself, and shocked silence descended, a silence so complete that breathing was the loudest sound under the fire-crackle, and she could hear the rustle of its feathers, and the scritching of its claws; one set of talons on the stone, the other on the hilt of the ritual sword. Rudi was there, and he sank to his knees before the altar.

A whisper of sound went through her: her own voice, near ten years gone. “And in the Craft, I name you Artos.”

Then Rudi spoke himself; clear, yet without any stress, as if he spoke to her rather than the great black bird whose wings near enfolded him. And he smiled, a smile full of joy, and fearless youth.

“Of course, Mother. Whenever You call for me, I will come.”

Juniper blinked. She saw her son, the child she had carried and nursed and loved, here in the dawning of his days. The raven’s wings moved, slowly, once and twice and again, and its beak dipped forward. Despite herself she caught her breath in fear; that flint-hard dagger could take out an eye in a single motion. And peck it did, a quick sharp stab, but all that left was a single drop of blood between his brows.

And then she saw him still, but not the child she knew, or in the nemed.

Instead the wings beat about another face, the face of a man in the first flush of his grown strength, jewel-cut strong-jawed handsomeness, with a bleeding slash on his forehead that he dashed at with one impatient hand, scattering clotted drops into his glory of curling red-gold hair. His mouth was stretched wide in a shout that was like the expression in his blue-gray eyes, a cry terrible and fierce and beautiful.

His black horse reared beneath him, and in his right hand was a sword held aloft with more red drops flying from its sweep — a great, straight double-edged thing with a crescent guard and staghorn hilt, its pommel a glowing opal gripped in spreading antlers, like the head of Cernunnos raised against the Hunter’s Moon.

Behind him she could sense banners, the moon and horns of the Clan, and others besides. Around and about him a great bare plain, and mountains rearing above it bleak with winter’s snow; a shadow of pike and lance and painted faces yelling; the sound of battle, screams of human and horse-kind, and the iron clangor she knew all too well, the massed whicker of arrows and the harsh snarl of steel on steel.

As the horse reared and the sword shone in the light of another setting sun a growing chorus sounded, louder even than the threnody of pain. A roar from thousands upon thousands of throats, beating like the heart of some great rough beast, or like the Pacific surf once, when she’d stood on a cliff in a time of storm and felt the living rock tremble to the blows of Ocean.

“Artos! Artos! Artos! Artos!”

Juniper closed her eyes and shuddered for an instant; above the chant and woven with it, she heard the words she’d spoken in this very nemed at Rudi’s Wiccaning, or which Someone had spoken through her as she lifted her infant son over the altar:

Sad winter’s child, in this leafless shaw —
Yet be Son, and Lover, and Horned Lord!
Guardian of My sacred Wood, and Law —
His people’s strength — and the Lady’s sword!

The sequel, The Sunrise Lands, continues the series and begins a new sub-unit of novels in the Emberverse. About ten years pass before the action begins again. This time there will be a Quest, so strap Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces to your forehead before diving in.

So far we’ve covered the following S. M. Stirling novels in this series:

Island in the Sea of TimeAgainst 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

Next week, though, a quick look at two novels that could have — but did not — spark series’ of their own. Next week I invoke Darwin. Don’t miss it.

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

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I haven’t kept up with that series. I wonder if dragons had appeared somehow yet. Thanks for the update.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x