This blog isn’t quite a review, spoilers hang around like a free lunch lurks nearby, so be warned. This is book number nine. Or six. Or three. Take your pick: go all the way back to the Nantucket novels, or just back to the first three Emberverse books, or just to Rudi McKenzie’s introduction to the fine art of questing two books ago. Fantasy Literature has blogged ’em all.
Part 1, That Conan Thing & The Sword of the Lady, was last week. Here in Part 2, the action picks up after the questers leave a cheering Iowa and head to Ingolf’s home town, where he doubts what kind of reception he’ll get from his brother, the Sheriff (which translates as “unequivocal ruler”).
But Ingolf needn’t have worried; he was just a dumb kid when he left under a cloud some ten years prior to the action in this novel, and his brother has moved on as well. The questers are greeted with open arms and take a well-deserved rest until enough winter sets in for the party to travel by ski and sled to the east.
Kicking off from former Wisconsin, Rudi’s small war party heads into the wilderness. They encounter Major Graber, hand him another defeat, and reach a community of faux-Norse in former Maine. Think of this as Lothlorien; Rudi gets another chance to chat Hero stuff with Odin (this time via a Seeress), to recruit new followers, and to take ship for Nantucket.
First he beats up on Major Graber & his misguided allies. Then the questers end up on a captured vessel crewed by moors (well, not really), fight a sea battle against that persistent Major Graber, and manage to make landfall on a Nantucket gone mystical and strange — even stranger than when Ingolf the Wanderer was there four years ago. Yes, Rudi gains the sword. And yes, Stirling times this achievement with the end of the novel. This isn’t a three-book cycle. We’re in serious series fiction territory now!
Back home, naturally, the war goes poorly. CUT high seekers have major mojo; castles are falling to cases of treachery inexplicable by normal means. The leaders of the membership polities of the Corvallis Meeting know they’re on the ropes on the one hand, and trying to keep up with Rudi’s announcements about the creation of Montival, which he will lead as a King of Kings, on the other.
Series fiction requires the author balance between keeping the reader’s periodic interest with enough action, without moving so quickly through the story that the series ends prematurely.
The Sunrise Lands and The Scourge of God handle this balance well. Any reader can do a reasonable job of catching up by picking any book in the series up first: the amount of remedial material — hey-let’s-be-reminded-who-we-all-are-and-what’s-going-on-here-anyway prose — is limited and folded into each novel. By The Sword of the Lady, however, the “just in time” tactic begins to wear thin, and a loyal reader of the whole series to date might begin to become annoyed by the repetition of backstory, not the best reward for long service.
To balance this mild punishment Stirling offers gems of reference that go all the way back to the Nantucket books. For when Rudi finally makes it ashore, after some two years of questing across the Changed north America, after politics and battle and travel and danger and misery galore (all the better for us readers!) Stirling takes this opportunity to lay out the mythic basis for the entire series. Rudi meets, in true wiccan form, three women:
″Mother?″ Rudi Mackenzie said, walking forward.
The three figures around the campfire looked up at him. His eyes flicked back and forth. The fire killed some of his night vision; he could sense huge trees rearing skyward, like the Douglas fir in the Cascades above Dun Juniper but grander still and with more deeply furrowed reddish bark. Scents like spice and thyme and flowers drifted on air just cool enough to make him glad of his plaid.
He glanced down for an instant. He was in shirt and kilt and plaid. The short slight redheaded figure in the middle wore a shift and arsaid, and leaned on a rowan staff topped by a silver raven′s head. On her left was a tall thin woman with black skin and broad features scored by age, her cropped cap of white hair tight-kinked, wearing unfamiliar clothes that had the look of a uniform. On her right was a not-quite-girl of a little less than his own age, long-limbed and blond and comely, in a strange outfit of string skirt, knit tunic, feathers and a necklace of amber-centered gold disks.
The mother, the maiden, and the crone — though he’s warned not to call her that, and Rudi wisely chooses to call her “wise one” instead — are plainly not people, but representations of some greater powers or beings, come to fill Rudi in on the cosmic truths underpinning his universe. In Socratic fashion, they show him mysteries, then ask questions:
Darkness; a nothingness in which he floated, nothingness so complete that even emptiness was absent and duration itself had not yet begun. A point of light, and existence twisting as it expanded and the arrow of time sprang from the string, soaring upward. Darkness that swelled, dense and hot and pregnant with Being, and then a flash of light as suns fell in upon themselves and lit. They burned with a glow that illuminated curtains of red and yellow fire, structures so vast that worlds would be less than grains of sand amongst them. Stars and galaxies flying apart from each other. Darkness again, as they dwindled into distance. Suns turned swollen and red and guttered out, or exploded in cataclysmic violence that faded into cankered knots of twisted space. Those boiled away in turn. Darkness more absolute than imagination could encompass, as the stuff of matter itself decayed into absence. Darkness without end, for nothing was different from nothing and nowhere was anyplace and everywhere.
″What does that remind you of?″ his mother′s voice asked.
He blinked back to something like the waking world, where light flickered ruddy on tree bark.
Rudi answers that it reminds him of the determined atheism of Sandra Arminger, Mathilda’s mother. Yet in this Changed world, that is not the way of things. The Hero is challenged to recall what the Being that took the form of Odin told him in a fever dream in The Scourge of God:
Fact becomes history; history becomes legend; legend becomes myth. Myth turns again to the beginning and creates itself. The figure for time isn′t an arrow; that is illusion, just as the straight line is. Time is a serpent.
All this and more, the trio tell him, means there is God, but God is divided, and so there is war in heaven. So above, so below. The friendly powers, deemed good, support Rudi and his ilk, while the unfriendly powers, who seek total control, the death of the chaotic spark, control the CUT. Humanity, like a child with a knife or a flame, needed a terrible lesson — the Change, which killed billions (and put Nantucket deep into the past) — all for the sake of time to learn better. Yet it is only a chance, and Rudi, equipped with the Sword of the Lady, must fight and win this great struggle of his time for that chance to be sustained and carried forward.
In a form of literary “fan service,” Stirling grants his most loyal readers and fans this boon: while the Mother takes the form of Juniper McKenzie, herself herself, the maiden takes the form of Deer Dancer, Windapa, the stunning blond rescued from a life of bondage by the crew of Eagle, sailing out of Nantucket after the Change on a trading voyage to pre-historic Britain. Of course, the Wise One is Marian Alston. Stirling makes no particular fuss over this revelation: he knew as of 2009 that fans have plenty of ways to communicate their glee of this gift to the fans.
Rudi accepts the sword from the trio, and his mission to save the world. In a touching moment, he stumbles back to Mathilda, who through her great love and devotion has managed to follow Rudi, Artos of Montival, nearly all the way to the Sword itself:
The others saw him as he stumbled down the stairs, bleeding from nose and ears and eyes and mouth. The sheathed form of the Sword lay across his palms. He met their eyes, and choked out:
″Remember. Remember, all of you. Most of all you, Matti, anamchara, beloved.″
Mathilda′s voice was infinitely gentle: ″Remember what, my darling?″
″That I was a man, before I was King. Remember for me, when I forget.″
His hand closed on the black double-lobed hilt, and the moonfire in the opal glowed. He drew the Sword, thrust it high.
And screamed as pain beyond all bearing ripped through him like white fire, turning his body to a thing of ash and smoke.
He screamed, and knew.
For those readers of this blog who aren’t already familiar with Stirling’s text, you can relax. While his apotheosis (still got Campbell taped to your forehead?) hurts, Rudi does not turn to ash at this time. So Rudi Mckenzie, who started the quest as Tainist of the Clan McKenzie, understudy to the Chief, his mother, ends the quest High King Artos of Montival, a pretty good trick, as he’s been out of what is now called Montival–the Pacific northwest, more or less — for about two years.
The Sword of the Lady represents a break in routine for the Emberverse. The first trilogy, truly just one novel broken into three parts, forms a unity; these Rudi books could have formed a trilogy, or one novel broken into discrete parts, like Tolkien’s ‘history.’
Beyond this point it becomes ever more clear these Emberverse novels become pearls on a string, chapters in a tale of epic length. The High King of Montival documents High King Artos’s journey west. Veteran readers anticipate the warrior transformed into the hero god; fans of fantasy can’t wait to see the Sword in action.
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
Look for the sword to shine in The High King of Montival, spotlighted in the next Fantasy Literature, right here at Black Gate.
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.