This blog continues a series that began with a look at S. M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy, moved on to the first three books of the Emberverse (Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War, and A Meeting at Corvallis, and last time touched on two orphans from between the time of the Nantucket trilogy’s publication and Dies the Fire. These are not reviews, spoilers exist, engage Fantasy Literature and make it so.
First, let us pity the poor author of series fiction. He or she faces a constant strain: by repeating a formula, readers receive more of what they love from previous books, the very thing that attracted readers in the first place. Yet repeating that formula by rote can bore readers, causing them to drop away from the series.
The Sunrise Lands is Stirling’s terrific solution to this challenge. The first three books in the series handled the Change and the immediate consequences: thrilling fun, every one. Now about ten years have passed and a Cheesehead — err, a man from the Republic of Richland (formerly Wisconsin) rides wearily into Clan territory. He arrives just before a holiday he knows as Halloween that the McKenzies treat much more seriously: Samhain. Ingolf Vogeler is there because he can’t avoid it. Ingolf Vogeler, former cavalry troop leader (a military man!), salvage team leader, and now wanderer seeks relief from the demanding dream that haunts him:
Ingolf’s dream was the same as always: the screams of his comrades, the terror of the blinding light that pierced hand and eyelid, and the sword, the sword hanging impossibly in the blaze, the Voice tolling in his mind.
This hook is all readers know of the dream for many pages. Ingolf wakes from it to face assassins sent by the main villainous faction of the tale bent on preventing him from delivering word of his vision. Only after weeks of recovery is he strong enough to relate why he travelled so far west.
After leading a salvage team deep into the cannibal-infested east coast, he took a side trip to Nantucket (yes, that Nantucket) where he found otherworldly visions, including several of him in alternate time-streams, but primarily of a Sword. Unfortunately for Ingolf Vogeler, or fortunately, perhaps, the Sword is not for him:
You are not the one. You must find him. Travel from sunrise to sunset, and seek the Son of the Bear Who Rules. Tell the Sword of the Lady what awaits him.
A door swung open, slowly. The light behind it was terrible, and more than anything in the world he wanted to turn away, turn aside, but he knew it would shine wherever he turned his head. Blood dribbled from his bitten lips, and the sting was sweetness.
The sword hung there. He craved it, and dropped to his knees, beating his fists on the floor, wailing the anguish of denial.
As keen-eyed readers of this blog recall, Rudi McKenzie, Juniper’s son by Mike Havel, the Bear Lord, is the Sword of the Lady, and Ingolf is relieved of his dream, if not his role in the narrative, once he arrives to deliver his message.
Stirling deftly gets the Quest moving: in remarkably little time he presents the otherwise dull but necessary parts needed to get a company of Questers together. Nine is the traditional number: Rudi, of course, will lead, which takes some accepting by the older, more experienced Ingolf Vogeler, who agrees to assist in travelling all the way east to Nantucket Island in search of the sword. Rudi’s half sisters Mary and Ritva Havel, both Dunedain, go along.
Rudi’s back will be ably guarded by Sam Aylward’s son, Edain. These five are to undertake the journey, but heir to the throne of the Protectorate, Mathilda Arminger, shares a blood oath with Rudi, and she manages to sneak away from under the watchful eye of her mother Sandra “the Spider” Arminger and join the quest. Odard Liu, son of the unlamented (by McKenzies) Baron Liu, a Protectorate knight accompanies her, as does his servant and Father Ignatius, a warrior-monk of Mount Angel.
The Sunrise Lands is a book of several important parts: the backstory of Ingolf Vogeler, who tells not only of his Vision and why he came to the west but also of his life in general, his salvage trip east, his escape from Nantucket magics, his betrayal by one of his team to soldiers of the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), his escape from same up to his clash with assassins in an inn several doors from many of the future questers, including Rudi himself.
Another portion of the novel tells of the various questers’ preparations for travel. The twins meet with a CUT preacher as they covertly gather supplies for the journey, reflecting at the pile of baggage that in the Histories (Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), they must have never changed underwear.
Edain says farewell to his family. And it turns out Odard’s mother, who has a grudge against Juniper McKenzie, hosted the CUT assassins in a hunting lodge on Liu Baronial land. Odard himself is ambitious, and pledges to accompany Mathilda largely because she represents his path to the throne of the Protectorate.
The Quest finally begins in the spring of Change Year (CY) 23, 2021 AD. Rudi sneaks out of the Shi — errr, Clan McKenzie lands, because everyone knows about the Quest and that big thing from when Raven pecked him on the forehead and besides, spies, maybe assassins.
Sneaking is worth little; the CUT are maneuvering to block the quest already. They know all about it, as they had an agent with Ingolf’s salvage crew (and they captured him, too), and bands of ragged Change survivors hunt Rudi and his companions from the outset.
Naturally, the fellowshi — err, the good guys win, at the same time saving a group from New Deseret along the way. Centered in former Utah, the Mormons are at war with the CUT, so Rudi, thinking long term, finds it worthwhile to help as best he can.
Soon afterward, his sisters, through dint of much skulking and a brief session of Sentry Removal, discover an ambush by Sword of the Prophet cavalry before it can surprise troops of The United States of Boise. The heroes do the obvious thing, help out, and so the questers start to gain another ally against the CUT, who had before this avoided war with Boise. As the ambush aided assassins intent on taking the life of President and General Thurston, Boise’s leader (and his sons, Martin and Frederick), this apparently counter-productive move leads soon to open war between the CUT and Boise.
The people of New Deseret are losing their war with the CUT — badly. When battle between Boise and the CUT begins, Mormon refugees are streaming along the roads toward Boise, where at last the Boiseans are extending assistance against their now common foe. This battle represents the last main event for The Sunrise Lands. The CUT isn’t acting foolishly after all; while their first plan was ably foiled by Rudi and his team, the CUT’s main target is Rudi and the questers. The General’s eldest son kills him during the battle; Rudi rescues the Boise leader’s younger son and flees.
Branded murderers by the usurper, Martin Thurston, Rudi’s band is on the run, without most of their gear, heading east as best they can.
What distinguishes The Sunrise Lands, other than the efficient handling of the prequels to questing? First, Stirling continues to have fun with his readers. Mathilda Arminger, a solid good guy, is nevertheless saddled with Sauron’s Eye as her heraldic blazon. This requires explaining to the people of Boise who happen to have read Tolkien. And while shopping for gear in Bend, formerly in Oregon and now in CORA (Central Oregon Rancher’s Association) territory, Mary and Ritva Havel do all their shopping at a certain weapon shop:
There was an enticing smell to the weapon shop of Isherman, though. The sharp acrid scents of oiled steel and brass, the richer mellowness of leather and seasoned cedarwood, boxes of horn and sinew and wicker baskets full of grey goose flight feathers. Spears and polearms gleamed in horizontal racks or rested with their butts in wire cages, like sheaves of demonic pruning hooks; bundles of arrows bristled from barrels, and arrowheads rested gleaming in little kegs. Armor stood on old store mannequins, looking like ghostly headless warriors in the gloom, and helmets hung like bunches of huge grapes from the ceiling.
Our friend Wikipedia can tell you all you need to know about The Weapon Shops of Isher. Of note is the philosophy that underpins van Vogt’s story; Stirling is referencing what might be a favorite author, for philosophical reasons.
Naturally, references to Tolkien abound, and the references go deep. On the surface there are nine questers, and of course Rudi/Frodo quests after the Great Dingus/to get rid of the Great Dingus; he has Edain/Sam along to guard his back.
Odard seems to be our Boromir candidate, those Havel twins seem like Merry and Pippin, off doing their own thing and generally providing humor, as when they sing, in Sindarin elvish, “The Ballad of Eskimo Nell” for the children of Boise’s president at a formal dinner.
Stirling knows his audience. Genre readers (viewers, gamers, filkers, LARPers, cosplayers…) are bound together by a common body of references. We share them promiscuously. We express this quality so often the mannerism forms a key element of the geek stereotype.
This is one advantage the Emberverse has over, say, the world of The Peshawar Lancers — a common core of popular culture these survivors can draw on as Stirling advances his alternate history into a future beyond the current date. Hence Tolkien, hence van Vogt, hence dozens of little easter eggs tucked into the text for readers to discover.
Stirling also uses a common American geography to great advantage. The imagined post-Change world is built on the bones of the old but is dramatically new and exotic. Boise is a walled city, suburbs thoroughly torn down, the land repurposed. Back home, “modern” structures are clad in grey marble and granite salvaged from uselessly tall Portland skyscrapers. This is fantasy literature, there is no doubt.
I believe that the fantastic is an area of literature that is heavily dependent on the dialectic between author and reader for the construction of a sense of wonder, that it is a fiction of consensual construction of belief. (Rhetorics of Fantasy)
Where Dies the Fire begins in our real world, then departs from it in a quantum cataclysm, surely purposeful, The Sunrise Lands begins in a hybrid setting; fantasy overtop the ruined 20th century earth. The relationship between the author and reader is therefore different. The reader is now more willing to allow for magic, for example, and hints abound that magic indeed plays a larger role in Change Year 23 than it did in Change Year 1, or even 9.
As we continue our romp through the Emberverse books, remember Mendelsohn and the taxonomy she presents in Rhetorics of Fantasy (find all this in the introduction of her book):
In this book I argue that there are essentially four categories within the fantastic: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive, and the liminal. These categories are determined by the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world. In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic, in the intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the fictional world, in the liminal fantasy the magic hovers in the corner of our eye, while the immersive fantasy allows us no escape.
In Dies the Fire the fantastic element — the Change — was clearly intrusive; then in a science-fictional way, the story unfolds with a reasonable amount of logical cause and effect. By A Meeting in Corvallis, magic is peeking out at the reader; shy, timorous, and with a promise for more.
Bookends of fulfilled promise bracket this novel; the main action takes place between Ingolf’s revelation and the scene in the final pages of The Sunrise Lands. Just as Rudi escapes from CUT cavalry after a massive battle between Boisean and CUT armies, he is overcome by pain and shadows.
The narration cuts to Sethaz, adopted son of the Prophet (who is heavily hinted to be the Unibomber, dubbed “uniwhacker” in this text). Sethaz screams himself permanently hoarse as he is — apparently at the same moment Rudi is struck low — afflicted with great pain. When he is “himself” again, he announces the Prophet is dead, and that he is now the Prophet. Future events beyond The Sunrise Lands prove he isn’t just whistling Dixie — he’s right. But how could he know, hundreds of miles from home, and in a world without electricity?
Magic, of course, plain and obvious. There are Beings out there, it seems. Some of them seem to come to humanity in the forms shaped by worship. Others are not worshiped but obeyed. And a wonderfully horrifying villain is placed on stage, just in time for the curtain to fall on this act.
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
Stay tuned for next week’s look at The Scourge of God.
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.