Fantasy Literature — this blog right here — continues looking at work by S. M. Stirling. I began with a look at this author’s Nantucket trilogy, moved on to the first three books of the Emberverse, and last time The Sunrise Lands came into view. The Scourge of God carries the series forward. These are not reviews, spoilers exist, set the table for some Fantasy Literature and dig in.
A cliffhanger is a useful device. No better hook exists for engaging a reader’s devout and ongoing attention, across the months and years between books. Emberverse novels appear on a regular annual basis, but not every author is so regular — yes, Martin, we’re all thinking of you.
The Sunrise Lands ends with Rudi’s rescue from certain capture or death by the fortuitous arrival of Boise’s pedal-powered airship. The “Sword of the Lady” is free, but three of his companions remain captive of the CUT. The Scourge of God must begin, therefore, with their rescue.
Rudi McKenzie calls on what mystical powers he possesses to fight like Conan himself; this seems to go beyond any ordinary beserker rage. “Fast, hard, and accurate: pick any two” is the way melee combat works for an individual, but Rudi manages all three.
Here he enters melee with the Cutters:
Then he was in among them, and time slowed. Vision flashed and blurred, expanding and shrinking at the same time — threats, blades and bows, and targets, joints and faces, everything else not really seen at all. It was the gift of the Crow Goddess, only to be called upon in extremity.
Father Ignatius, entering the melee with a small cavalry contingent, witnesses Conan/Rudi at work:
Then in the midst of the melee the warrior-priest’s eyes went wide. Mary Havel was fighting sword-and-shield against a short one-eyed man Ignatius recognized from descriptions, but that wasn”t what made him stare.
“Lord of Hosts!” he blurted.
Rudi Mackenzie was coming through the thick of the Cutter press, killing at every second step, eyes showing white all around pupils grown huge, teeth bared in an ululating banshee wail loud even in the clamor of battle. A swordsman staggered back and fell, his pelvis shattered by a kick. Another reeled away with half his face sheared off, hands scrabbling at the impossible wound. An enemy rider struck downward with the horrified desperation of a man finding a scorpion on his chest. Sparks flew in a blue-and-red shower where the Mackenzie’s buckler knocked the hete away, and a thrust to the man’s armpit sank six inches deep in a snap like a frog’s tongue after a dragonfly. That turned into a backhand cut . . .
The shete blow skidded off Rudi’s longsword. Strong and skilled, Kuttner cut backhanded at the bigger man’s neck. The blow stopped halfway, and the longsword was through Kuttner’s body just below the breastbone, two feet of blood-slick steel glistening out his back.
And he smiled, with blood running black between his teeth. And he dropped his weapon and shield and reached out with both hands; they fastened on Rudi’s neck and pulled his own body forward along the yard of swordblade until the cross-guard thumped against his ribs.
“I… see… you,” he rasped.
The voice had nothing to do with the bits of lung he spat out through a laughing mouth. It ground out the words like a mill that minced human bone, and it was gleeful.
“Raven… son… of… Bear. I… see… you.”
Rudi lunged backwards, releasing the hilt of his sword, striking upward with hands bunched between Kuttner’s arms in a move skilled and quick and hugely strong. He might as well have struck a statue cast in bronze, and for a moment he froze in goggling surprise as a move he knew had to work failed totally. The blood-covered teeth grinned closer and….
As the opening ceremonies of The Scourge of God makes clear, there is a war above, and so above, so below. Juniper McKenzie observes “And also we are told that unimaginable Powers are at strife in the worlds beyond the world. Our struggle is theirs as well.”
Just as the great powers of the Cold War fought proxy wars around the globe to increase their influence, the Powers, after the Change, fight also. Just as readers were exposed to slightly ever larger increments of magic in the opening books of the Emberverse, so also the scope of this conflict becomes clear in successive steps. Juniper McKenzie and other key women ask the Powers for news; they get scenes from around the world, including a glimpse of the new Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), Sethaz.
The Prophet of the CUT has work to do, suborning his new ally, Boise, digesting New Deseret, and planning war against the peoples of the Corvallis Meeting, now some 20-ish governments, including Mathilda’s PPA and Rudi’s Clan McKenzie. Martin Thurston seems willing enough — he’ll kid a kidder and go along with Sethaz, no problem. Sethaz orders General Walker (ring a bell? Hey, that’s right, that guy from the Nantucket books is named Walker…) to do what is necessary to break the guerillas holding out against the CUT. And of course there’s stopping the Questers.
As for Sethaz’s new war to the west, Pendleton is the key. As the novel unfolds in twin narrative threads, one focuses on the Pendleton Round Up. Sethaz and Martin Thurston visit, with troops, to offer Pendleton protection against those naughty people of the Corvallis Meeting, including those PPA types who like to build castles then declare the common folk to be naught but serfs. The Dunedain Rangers have a plan, and from it springs a major black ops mission intended to capture the Bossman of Pendleton and his family.
Sethaz assigns several hundred Sword of the Prophet cavalry to the task of hunting down Rudi and his companions, under Major Graber and accompanied by a High Seeker, a priest of the CUT.
The dual narrative is compelling. In Pendleton, troops of the Corvallis Meeting are late to the party; their attempt to show up, flex muscles, and get Pendleton to sign up with the good guys is stymied when the baddies arrive in force first. They are flexing their muscles, in a nice and polite way, with the approval of Pendleton’s leader and his family, when a Dunedain raiding party led by Astrid Loring busts into a formal gathering, intent on kidnapping the Pendleton Bossman and his family.
Unfortunately for the Dunedain, Sethaz is at the party. As the Rangers try to control the crowd and take their captives away, the Prophet has something to say about it:
His hands swept closed on the head of the cowboy she’d heard called George. As they did the young man’s expression became a mirror of that on the face of the Cutter prophet leering over his shoulder.
“Kill,” Sethaz said again, and it was no louder than an ordinary speaking voice, but it seemed to echo back and forth within her skull.
It is way too early to have Sethaz himself stabbed, bashed, or decapitated — whole books await, and he has a lot of work to do as the chief baddy — so George gets to be the stand-in. Possessed by the Other Power, George proceeds to almost derail the black ops mission all by himself, slugging the gaint John Hordle in the short ribs, and catching Astrid’s bare sword blade in his bare hands before popping the sword out of her grip, giving her a concussion. Lucky for the good guys, decapitating one of these “possessed by the dark powers” fellows seems to do the trick.
The western story line progresses from here; the Bossman is captured, but his capable wife and his sons are not. The military force sent to flex muscles has to turn tail in the face of superior armed might. Tiphaine Rutherton, Lady D’Ath, manages a fighting retreat and saves the force, and sundry secondary characters get their time on stage, whether on the front lines or in conference rooms back home.
To the east, Rudi succumbs to the usual Hero Syndrome, familiar to readers of the Harry Potter books. Trying to save a village of Mormons from the not very gentle attentions of CUT cavalry levies on their way home (stopping in to raid a little, pick up some slaves and loot, generally being Very Naughty), Rudi gets his group into hot water. He extracts them in time, but takes a cursed arrow in the back.
Luckily, Major Graber has mostly killed his horses, and Stirling, watchful of the real, knows what happens — and shares that with his readers — when horses are ridden too far, too hard. They die on the spot, or become so weak they’re no good.
Graber has options, and the High Seeker and his skilled scout, not a member of the CUT but a servitor, continue the chase. They will blaze a trail for Graber and his soldiers to follow, once they have new mounts.
In the deathmatch throw-down between Ranger scouts Ritva and Mary Havel and the CUT’s pro from Dover, Ritva wins it by a foot:
He was wearing fringed leggings of mottled buckskin and a long woolen shirt covered in rondels of cloth sewn with images — a bow, a canoe, a horse, more — and a bearskin tunic over that. If he had a backpack or supplies, he’d cached them elsewhere.
“You are not like the women of the Prophet’s men,” he said.
The fighting-ax and bowie made precise, lazy circles to draw her eyes; she kept them on his, instead, and let the focus blur a little so that peripheral vision would be sharper. The white plumes of their breath puffed out into the chilly falling drizzle, slowing as they controlled the impulse to pant.
“They are sheep,” he went on. “You are a she-wolf, like our Scout women, worthy of badges of merit of your own; I have followed you many days, and seen your skill. I will take you back to the Morrowlander camps northward, and you will bear strong cubs. The Prophet can go find comfort with his wooly ewes.”
“Alae, nago nin, hwest yrch!” she said. “Oh, bite me, orc-breath!”
They are evenly matched, but his is the foot that slips first on the uneven floor of the forest. Ritva prevails, and her foe buys his life with information: her sister Mary is in the hands of the Cutter’s High Seeker, so Ritva rides to the rescue:
Mary screamed again; she was up against the hundred-foot pine shed been using as a blind, and a man in a robe the color of dried blood was holding her by the throat. Holding her off the ground, and squeezing, and her face was a mass of blood. The D’nedain longsword lay on the ground nearby, and a shete; they were both red, the sticky liquid turning thin and dripping away as rain washed the steel.
“Look… at… me,” the man — the priest — in the robe said. “I… see… you.”
His other arm ended short of a hand, and it had a rawhide tourniquet bound around it; even then Ritva found a fractional instant to be astonished. An injury like that would leave a man flat on his back with shock for days, at a minimum! And the hand was lying not far off.
“Look… at… me,” he said again. “Tell… me…” The words sounded dark. Not just deep or gravelly; as if they had more weight than words could bear, as if they were suffused somehow, like a man’s face when he strained at a heavy load, like a weight that dimpled the surface of the world.
Mary struck the High Seeker’s hand from his arm, yet still lost the fight. Ritva, better informed about the nature of these CUT adherents, manages to win a nightmare duel against the practically unkillable foe who need only get a good grip on her to kill her. Mary is short an eye; Ritva returns to the camp where Rudi is near death with a festering arrow wound in his back.
“I…see…you…” becomes in The Scourge of God a signature phrase of abstract horror, conveying succinctly that a Being has indeed seen a character in the text, and not in a good way. Indeed, the eldritch fear Stirling manages to induce in his reader serves as a tribute to his skills as a fantasy writer: horror isn’t his thing, after all.
The novel resonates around these moments of horror, as is only fitting as a middle-ish book in a sequence of the Emberverse one can think of as the Quest of the Sword (& aftermath). There is much more plot, of course. Rudi has a feverish vision where he talks Hero Talk with Odin (invoke Campbell!), and amidst the discussion of myth and infinity and the world is a neat reasoning behind why the Change was imposed on the world. Rudi’s festering wound is finally cleaned properly so he might heal, and he and his companions are rescued and taken to Chenrezi Monastery in former Wyoming, in a town where a Buddhist convention was under way when the Change took place in 1998.
In Rivende — err, the monastery, Rudi is healed of his wounds, and he is much changed, both by the recovery and with his big talk with the Wanderer, Odin. More determined than ever to gain useful allies as they quest to Nantucket, Rudi continues in the spring. They gain a dispossessed Rancher’s daughter, and still have Fred Thurston on the team. Major Graber and a new High Seeker tag along, too. Never a dull moment on the quest!
The questers meet the Sioux, or more properly the Lakota, and become adopted into the tribe. They move on to Iowa and find the CUT there ahead of them, scheming away.
But Iowa is much taken with Princess Mathilda and Baron Liu, and events will unfold in the next novel in the series that highlight an ongoing theme: old attitudes about the world and governance are giving way to how changelings — those born near to or after the Change — view the world.
While Des Moines entertains the quasi-prisoners from the PPA, learning from them court manners and fancy dress, Rudi is given a quest by the Bossman of Iowa — he wants the wagons full of artworks abandoned by Ingolf’s salvage team somewhere in Illinois. And being old enough to remember movies from before the change, the Bossman — not a nice guy — insists “there can be only one.” Rudi will have to go alone.
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
Next time, the promisingly titled The Sword of the Lady.
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.