Fair warning: spoilers ahead. Fantasy Literature continues a week by week analysis of S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse novels. This week: Rudi, now better known as High King (or Ard Ri) Artos, figures out his nifty new sword and heads back west, where the home folks are hard pressed by the CUT and the CUT’s ally, the United States of Boise.
The quest for the sword went three full books; the series now morphs into “fighting the CUT” and the very naughty Higher Powers using the CUT as finger puppets in the shadow play that is our world.
Two battles bracket The High King of Montival. First, Artos, with his growing personal retinue, charges to the rescue of the King of the faux-Norse, beset by barbarian hordes led by a CUT high seeker. The Sword of the Lady proves to be the weapon that counts; it not only swords as if it were the Platonic Ideal Sword, it de-diabolizes those naughty high seekers at a touch.
Near the end of the novel, Ritva shines in her role as scout. In the company of post-change Mounties, she’s far ahead of Artos’s main body, moving west at speed using the rail net. CUT cavalry misses their ambush due to Ritva’s uncanny Dunedain instincts, and she’s able to sound the alarm and return to a walled village. Though wounded, she stands to defend the wall using bow and spear. Ritva falls to a blow to the head, and the action shifts to Artos, who acts to mousetrap the CUT cavalry. He deploys his faux-Norse heavy infantry to draw the CUT away from the village, saving them from certain defeat, then hammers the enemy with the hammer of his own cavalry, new recruits to his force from the Republic of Richland, Ingolf’s homeland. What few CUT escape are snapped up by a force of Lakota light horse, more usually known in the area as cattle thieves, now part of the new High Kingdom of Montival.
This battle highlights how frightening High King Artos plus Sword of the Lady can be:
He threw away the stub and swept out the Sword.
The world seemed to slow for an instant, sounds deepening. Arrows moved past him, and he could see how they twirled as they flew. Cold fire ran through him, and he screamed in what might be agony or joy beyond bearing, and he could feel his connection to everything that was. Raven wings beat behind him, vast, implacable, fanning the fires that consumed worlds. He was those fires, the twisting transmuting light at the heart of exploding suns, the primal blaze that set the universe alight and made the very fabric of things. Time rushed past him, and he rent the substance of eternity as time itself rent apart cheap cloth. Behind him new life would rise.
This is how it is to wield the lightning, some lost fragment of selfhood knew. This is what it is to be a God, a lord of sky and storm and war!
He screamed again as the ríastrad took him and the Dark Mother’s mantle covered his eyes. He danced among veils of stars and galaxies, and the substance of his being flung outward. A tug at his hand, and a man’s arm flew upward; a backhand cut and ruin flopped away. Epona slammed into a lighter horse shoulder to shoulder, and the beast flipped backward to land on its wailing rider. Men hammered and stabbed at him, but shield and armor protected him like Her wings. He struck and struck, and struck and struck, killing with each blow. An ax twisted the metal of his visor, and he ripped it off with an impatient sweep of his shield-hand and cast it aside. He was wholly of the moment, and the observer at the still and hidden heart of things, the pivot on which the worlds turned.
Men saw his face, and the hardened fighters of the CUT screamed and threw themselves aside and fled. A few drove their own blades into their throats before he could reach them.
Sword and man and horse were one.
And that One was Death.
But much as Arthur’s Excalibur was outclassed by the sheath, the Sword’s power as the Ideal of Sword plays second fiddle to strategically useful powers. Artos uses the Sword to seal Major Graber against the Evil Powers that drive the CUT to their dire ends. This, at his own request, prior to Graber returning to CUT lands to begin the process of overturning the CUT in his homeland. The Sword screens the returning mini-army from the occult Eye of the CUT — which is why a substantial cavalry force shows up in former Canada to block Artos’s progress west.
In addition, the Sword grants the power of tongues. Artos speaks perfect Lakota, startling his adopted brother when he does so. Other knowledge comes to Artos naturally as well: he can read a battlefield like a book, figure logistics flawlessly in his head, never forget a face or a name, read terrain at a glance… chopping enemy is one thing. Managing the tasks of a general staff with the touch of a palm to the hilt of the Sword is another, more useful power.
Better yet, when newly crowned King Bjarni of Norrheim, leading the picked company of faux-norse in Artos’s retinue, confronts the angry son of a fallen rival for his throne, the High King steps forward and uses the sword to recall to both men what is true in their hearts. The newly fatherless man swears his fealty; King Bjarni is reaffirmed in his position as King. And High King Artos continues his trek westward with ever more allies in his wake.
Reminders of past storylines continue to act like sand in the gears of the plot; the series, now growing long in the tooth, shows its age. Worse is to follow, for Stirling in The Tears of the Sun finds it necessary to recount events occurring in Montival, through an increasingly inelegant series of flashbacks — but that’s next time.
For now, appreciate the Aragorn-esque rise of Rudi McKenzie, High King Artos of Montival, to that august and serious position. Not yet married to Mathilda, not yet crowned king, Artos is gathering his allies together, like fingers closing into a fist.
The hordes of Iowa and Nebraska, bolstered by the smaller kingdoms such as Richland, now move to the west to attack the CUT. Yet another assassination attempt on Artos while in the presence of Iowa’s leader, widow of the slain Bossman of Iowa (at the CUT’s hand, no less), assures these groups are committed to the cause. The Lakota are on board, as are a contingent of Norrheimers and Richland cavalry. The Dominions, roughly equivalent to provinces of pre-change Canada, are now at war with the CUT.
This ride of Kingship parallels Aragorn’s, as Stirling’s playful evocation of Tolkien’s masterwork begins to wind down. Aragon delays his formal crowning for quite some time. First he must gather to himself the Rohirrim; often overlooked by readers of LotR is Aragorn’s collecting the peoples who arrive by ship to help win the Battle of the Pelannor Fields. He arrays himself in the necessary political connections before dressing as the King of Gondor.
In the Emberverse, the Sword enables this long arc of developing Kingship — but not through battle alone. Indeed, the battle scenes satisfy the fantasy reader with a taste for Conan-level swordplay. Meanwhile, readers playing the long game appreciate the warp and weft of the tapestry Stirling weaves upon his loom.
To finish, a wry joke Stirling plays on behalf of his readers. After the battle with CUT cavalry, a large unit of mounted Mounties arrive. “So, the Force is with us!” says Artos, who is surprised when two older ex-Canadians laugh. Cue rimshot.
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 Tears of the Sun.
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.