In earlier Fantasy Literature blogs I’ve discussed the first three novels of S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse: Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War, and A Meeting in Corvallis (blogged in Part 1 and Part 2!) Before moving on to the next book in the series, The Sunrise Lands, let’s take a quick look at two of Stirling’s orphans, 2001’s The Peshawar Lancers and 2003’s Conquistador.
Understanding an author’s bibliography is partially about publication dates. S. M. Stirling’s Nantucket novels of the 1990’s came to a satisfactory close; for one reason or another, Stirling did not continue that series. But not until 2004 do we see Dies the Fire. What was our Canadian friend doing all those years?
Casting series seeds upon the wind, and coming up dry. Years of successful collaboration with authors like Pournelle and Drake, other series, and film tie-in novels based on the Terminator franchise make Stirling a professional genre writer. Very busy. Laudable, enviable (to other writers), and smart. By smart I mean “always selling new books.” For most writers, one successful series can mean “no day job.” Stirling has managed several successful series — and that’s so far. Novels that never make to a sequel are part of the process…
Keeping a weather eye on the event horizon, Stirling birthed The Peshawar Lancers in 2001. It features an alternate history (sound familiar? The Emberverse is an alternative history what-if series) world in which the point of departure is a world-wide armageddon (sound familiar? The Emberverse… ah, I see you understand).
For example, the protagonist recalls tales of his father, exploring a dead European city:
Even faring to Europe, when a detachment was sent to guard scientists probing the bush-grown, savage-haunted ruins of the pre-Fall cities. Armed nights spent listening to the drums of the cannibal tribes throbbing in the dark valley of the Rhine while the archaeologists dug among the stones and bones of Essen; trekking through the endless forests and steppes to the east…
This echoes setting and action from Emberverse novels, especially in The Sunrise Lands and onward in the series.
In 2025 the resurgent British Empire… oh, read the novel. It features a main character who is a male military officer, but no female character of the importance of Juniper McKenzie, or even the spider, Sandra Arminger, and it may be this kept the book from spawning a series. Or it may be Stirling simply said what he had to say, in an alternate-history, steampunk, super spy/conspiracy/mystical way, and that was that. Here Athelstane King fights the primary enemy agent, atop a damaged airship:
King’s lips peeled back from his teeth. His whole left arm burned from the wrenching it had taken saving his life, and there was a slight blurriness to his vision and a fierce ache in his bead.
None of that mattered as he closed in for the kill. There would be no fancy footwork here; that was an invitation to go over the side.
It would be strength and speed against strength and speed — whether his injuries would be enough to balance his youth and reach. He drew back his blade for the first cut, and Ignatieff’s rose to meet it.
Krishna, but he’s strong, King thought, as the swords met. The blades flashed again and again, an unmusical kring-skrang! of steel on steel. It was barbarian-style swordplay, not scientific; drunken barbarians at that, because the hull was still pitching and rolling with a slow majesty that sent both men staggering and lurching. One such sent King into the path of Ignatieff’s saber, just close enough that the tip of the blade touched the skin over his eyes. Blood poured down from the shallow cut, half-blinding him, stinging.
In the end, Stirling lifts a solution to maddening prophecy from a Bond movie, and the good guys win. Is this an orphan or an intentional singleton? The characters enjoy happy endings, but the fascinating alternate history world of The Peshawar Lancers has plenty of politics still to thrash out….
Conquistador is Stirling’s 2003 publication. In it, a weird electrical accident creates a stable portal to a parallel universe. In this one, north America hasn’t been colonized, making it and the world in general… colonizeable. The WWII vet who miswired a radio with cosmic consequences establishes the Commonwealth of New Virginia (on the west coast. That feeling you have now is called “cognitive dissonance.”) In the narrative, uncolonized (until now) western north America features big game animals (imported through the portal) for hunting, a not terrifically egalitarian society facing a crisis of leadership, and lots of unexploited natural resources.
Hear echoes of the later Emberverse? The Change, there, let loose uncounted exotic animals on the lands, and tigers and lions in particular seem to enjoy the climate. Various Emberverse novels feature big game hunting, more athletic and dangerous than in a world where gunpowder still works. The concept that a single leader is able to put his stamp on a new society is also familiar: where Juniper McKenzie and her wiccans form the Clan McKenzie, the WWII officer forms New Virginia (with at least some of the unsavory, to contemporary eyes, connotations that implies, including a form of slavery).
In the denouement, the portal to what readers recognize as “our” reality is destroyed. Naturally, the isolated colonists in the alternate north America fix their portal machinery:
A long boom swung through the gate, with sensors at its end. And a television pickup; it was keyed to a large flatscreen placed where they could all look at it. The screen flickered, then settled to a clear image. It was raining there, too; as well it might, in midwinter along the Californian coast.
“But where is the Gate complex on FirstSide?” he asked himself; all he could see was long grass….
Rolf began to laugh; coughed, recovered, laughed again. Because in the grass was a dead animal, huge and shaggy, almost certainly a giant sloth. Paws braced on it, the saber-tooth bared its foot-long fangs and screamed, flattening its ears and bristling its orange-and-black-striped fur.
In short, Conquistador ends with a lovely hook for a sequel. Alas, one has yet to materialize. One assumes Stirling had no interest in a sequel — yet work is work, and at no other time in his career has Stirling proved shy about keeping a series going. One may better assume that the book simply didn’t sell enough to grow into a series. Critically speaking, the why of it isn’t important.
Yet our side trip to 2001’s The Peshawar Lancers and 2003’s Conquistador has not been wasted. Examining what works in the marketplace and what doesn’t work can be instructive. In neither of these novels are the women operating at the “run the show” level to the plot, as in the Emberverse. While rugged and tough or rugged and smart and certainly adventurous, the women of these novels serve as adjuncts to the male protagonists.
It could be that what caught on about the Emberverse novels is the painstaking foregrounding of women in them. This itself is an echo of the same foregrounding of women in Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy.
Successful series fiction such as the Emberverse appeals to readers, hooks enough of them in again and again to sustain the work. See earlier Fantasy Literature blogs to read about the honey of faux-Celts, the heady wine of faux-Tolkien, the many manly models of modern major-generals, the military women, the lets-throw-longbows-vs.-knights, the science-fictional analysis of contemporary knowledge applied in a low-energy environment… and all this was just the first three Emberverse novels.
What’s coming? The Sunrise Lands opens a new major storyline. New foes. New (well, familiar but now adult) heroes. More magic. All in the somewhat familiar geography of north America… or post-Change north America, overwritten by disaster and coming alive again in a new and fantastic form. There is even a United States — self proclaimed, barely an actual state, but proudly flying the Stars and Stripes — and much more.
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
One might imagine that what’s coming is the next iteration of the successful organism, the next generation of the seed that grew, Darwin triumphant. Check out The Sunrise Lands next week!
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.