Fantasy Literature: Tears of the Sun & the Frozen Pizza Effect

Fantasy Literature: Tears of the Sun & the Frozen Pizza Effect

The Tears of the Sun-smallThis blog is currently late in the game of discussing S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse novels. Not exactly reviews, there are spoilers everywhere here. Watch your footing and carry on.

Book Eight of the Emberverse, Tears of the Sun carries forward from an aging, creaky The High King of Montival — downhill. What better time to talk book covers?

Despite the success of the series for Stirling’s publisher, none of the covers serve the series well. They are generic, unlovable, inaccurate, bland, forgettable, and one can only imagine Stirling holding his tongue if asked about them. They commonly show a single male figure — Mike Havel, presumably, for the first three, and Rudi/Artos thereafter — armed and armored in some random fashion. A crossbow makes an appearance on several covers, for example, and when it comes to Rudi, the image bears little resemblance to the striking description provided by Stirling.

Clearly, the publisher here proved unwilling to shell out for the services of an artist such as Michael Whelan (see his website). Self-described as “Imaginative Realism,” Whelan’s work spans decades, reflects the same qualities expressed literarily by Stirling (remember that hybridity thing?), and as far as one can tell demonstrates the artist read the text before completing the art.

The cover for The Tears of the Sun shows a prospective reader a man (got that right) with short (long) black (reddish blond) hair, wearing some form of plate armor (okay) overtopped with a many-pocketed vest (what?) and pants, combat boots, and knee pads (huh?). The sword quested after for two years of bloody narrative does not appear on the cover — instead the sword represented on the cover is a generic longsword. In the background, what looks ominously like a horde of zombies stalks our hero.

[Click on any of the images for bigger versions.]

What a pity. Not that the artist (who appears to be anonymous, no cover artist is credited) did poor work. We readers simply got what the publisher paid for. Economics dictates big publishers like Penguin/Roc spend as little at possible on book art. And real art costs real money; artists gotta eat, pay mortgages, send kids to college, and so on.

It is a pity the publisher here missed a chance to recognize the Emberverse for what it clearly is: a popular and effective series, one that goes beyond the usual sub-boundaries. Genre fiction (if there is still such a thing, what with the New York Times bestseller list overrun with “genre” texts) is still sold cheap. Some publishers do art better than others, recognizing the whole package represents a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Some opt for a real artist, like Michael Whelan.

The High King of Montival-smallOther publishers go a different direction with their cover art.

The Tears of the Sun, poorly received, catches readers up on events in the coalescing new kingdom called Montival while Rudi & Co. made their way across a Changed north America and back. Stirling does his best to spice things up with a battle or two — but the Big Battle foreshadowed in The High King of Montival remains in the future.

The Dunedain provide the central caper of the novel. The United States of Boise provides high-quality heavy infantry and artillery to the CUT cause and must be defeated. Yet High King Artos knows his Sun Tzu: it would be far preferable to win without fighting this mighty inland power. But in fact the main obstacle to their success is parricide Martin Thurston. Now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Higher Powers behind the Church Universal and Triumphant, he serves as Saruman to high prophet Sethaz’s Sauron.

To that end the Dunedain mount a complex operation to rescue the dead President’s widow and her other children; with them telling the truth about who killed her husband, Boise’s troops are less likely to fight for the CUT’s cause. Readers remember the last big operation the Dunedain mounted had mixed success; thanks to Sethaz’s powerful mojo, Astrid Loring-Larsson earned a concussion, and while they captured the Bossman of Pendleton, his capable wife and sons remained, and Pendleton fell neatly into the enemy camp.

During the thrilling escape phase of the operation, a pedal-powered airship strives to reach the rooftop where the rescue team awaits:

The shark shape of the Curtis LeMay grew closer; probably they were only pedaling to keep steerage on her. Suddenly a dozen cords dropped down, whipping in the wind.

“Rhaich,” Ritva said dully.

Will anyone remember our heroic last stand? Or will we be just a footnote in a report on terrorist attacks?

The airship came on, rushing, suddenly huge. It would recede just as quickly, and just a bit too far to the westward despite the rudder and the frantic pedaling that drove the propeller. The wind was blowing harder…

John Hordle was up and across, running with a speed astonishing in a man seven inches over six feet and broad enough to seem squat. One of the tethering ropes was blowing beyond the northwest corner of the building, just out of reach. John reached the corner and leapt out into space.

John Hordle, Ritva Havel, and Astrid Loring-Larsson make this leap; the airship pivots at the point of added weight and the rescued hostages and the rescue team swarm aboard. The hostages include not just Fred and Martin’s mother and their sisters, but Martin’s own wife and son. Martin, leading troops in an attempt to recapture his errant family, witnesses first hand the effect of someone shouting the truth at his men:

“—innocent!” Martin heard, in his mother’s voice. “Frederick is innocent! Martin killed his father to seize power! Frederick sent these people to rescue us, and we’re going willingly. Martin is a traitor who betrayed America and killed my husband. Cast him off, cast him down!”

It gets worse for Martin when his wife sings her tune:

The Curtis LeMay was tethered at nose and tail to the eastern side of the building, shuddering in the wind. The gusts of rain made a tattoo on its fabric, unfortunately not enough to drown the speaking-trumpet from the gondola.

“It’s true!”

That was his wife’s voice. Rage flowed through him, cold as treacle, like living clouds drifting in a universe without stars.

“I heard him confess it. He threatened to kill me if I talked!”

The shouts were directed down at the street, but they were perfectly audible on the rooftop as well. The men were listening. And they were intimidated by the huge bulk that towered over them, paralyzed into a perfectly receptive frame of mind. Calculations of the least-bad course of action flowed through him, pinning inevitability.

Inevitability for Martin Thurston means shooting his own wife, means having his crossbowmen shoot. He takes a crossbow and shoots, once.

Stirling makes his reader wait a chapter to discover the result, but Astrid Loring-Larsson stops the crossbow bolt destined for Martin’s wife. And so another of the old-timers passes; the teenager so enamored of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at the time of the Change that she learned Sindarin, co-created the Dunedain, and made them a power to be reckoned with buys the farm saving Martin Thurston’s wife. And while every rational character in the series — including her husband — imagines Astrid is more than a little kooky, things Changed in Stirling’s 1997. Are the Dunedain the Men of the West? Is there a Valinor? To what end does Astrid go? Astrid, at least, knows, as Ritva describes to her Canadian friend after the fact:

And he’d been well back in the gondola when Astrid died in her husband’s arms, with Eilir’s tears falling on her face and John Hordle wringing great paws that suddenly looked so helpless. He didn’t understand the Noble Tongue all that well either yet, of course, and Astrid had been gasping.

“It was…” Ritva thought. “She was hurting a lot and she said good-bye to us all and told Alleyne to teach the children she’d loved them and hadn’t wanted to leave while they were still so young, and then… I thought she was gone and she opened her eyes and said: Like silver glass… green shores… the gulls… a white tower… home, home, at last…

“And then she died,” Ritva whispered after a moment. “One by one they go, the heroes, the legends.”

The-Secret-History-of-Fantasy-small2The Tears of the Sun does not give the reader much to like. But fantasy readers like their details, and there are some moments of excitement and interest, such as the rescue of the Thurstons.

Time to change gears and reach back to the past, to an author named Terry Brooks. The much promoted The Sword of Shannara back in the 1970’s helped Ballantine books launch Del Rey Books, a genre fiction imprint. It did so either despite or because Brooks’ novel provides the reader more Tolkien.

As described by David G. Hartwell in his “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre,” Lester del Rey’s insight “into what the audience wanted: not more fantasy but more Tolkien…” sparked the success of The Sword of Shannara and indeed a whole series of thick novels of similar ilk.

The formula for this novel and others in the same mode was simple:

The books would be original novels set in invented worlds in which magic works. Each would have a male central character who triumphed over evil — usually associated with technical knowledge of some variety — by innate virtue, with the help of an elder tutor or tutelary spirit.

(Hartwell’s article appears in the August, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction and in The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle.)

The Emberverse, a generation later, works against the late 70’s formula. First, the Emberverse is manifestly not a trilogy; even the early books, as described in early Fantasy Literature Emberverse blogs, are only vaguely trilogies.

Second, and spectacularly, the world is our world, albeit a Changed earth after the very early pages of Dies the Fire. True, in later Emberverse novels, the series moves away from being a portal fantasy (remember your Mendelsohn?) to being a genuine immersive work, as the speed-grown cultures of Changed north America, and the ever-increasing magic in the world, alter the otherwise familiar geography into something more traditionally fantastical.

The Sword of Shannara-smallIn contrast to the epic doorstoppers of the previous generation, Stirling adopts a new model* with the Emberverse — a model familiar to readers of mystery series. Tony Hillerman’s Navajo novels, for example, demonstrate the hybridization of the essentially romantic notion of the Truth-Seeker solving a mystery with Hillerman’s extensive real world knowledge of the American southwest.

Yet the mystery series, in which the same cast of characters do similar things (albeit with some personal development during the chronology of the series), does not fit the expected shape of this kind of fantasy literature.

In heroic, epic fantasy, the foe must be fought, not merely investigated. The world must be saved. We genre readers love immersion; no more nectar, ever, out of the blossom of Tolkien’s creation for us busy reader bees leaves us wanting more. A generation ago that was The Sword of Shannara. Today the series model gives readers more immersion, a book a year for a decade so far! That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Yet books like Tears of the Sun wear away at the hunger, erode the joy to be found in series fiction like the Emberverse. There is too much of the commercial about these later books, too much “this year’s paycheck” and not enough “finish the story arc, damn it.”

Even so, Stirling manages to provide some sustenance. In this chapter of the larger story one can learn how Tiphaine D’ath got religion, for example.

And while the Big Battle isn’t in these pages, there is an opening collision of forces that sets up the Big Do in Lord of Mountains, not to mention a kerfuffle featuring Ingolf the Wanderer or the Dunedain’s rescue mission. Stirling gives each of the secondary characters a bit of screen time.

Cheap frozen pizza consists of barely edible crust, “cheese” and something red that mimics tomato sauce. It provides sustenance. It can hold body and soul together until something better comes along. Keeping up with the leaders in Montival, with the captains of battle such as Tiphaine and Ingolf, with Ritva Havel and her new Canadian friend, the with the Dunedain, and of course with the main villains and their lesser minions, such as that weasel Alex Vinton from four books back… all this sustains the loyal reader. But just that. Sustains.

Lord of Mountains-smallServed too much frozen pizza, diners go elsewhere. As this 2011 publication is a question of history, we know the answer: the series still appears as of fall, 2014, so enough readers remain at the table to make it worthwhile to Stirling’s publisher.

So far we’ve covered the following S. M. Stirling novels in this series:

Island in the Sea of TimeAgainst 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 what’s on the plate in Lord of Mountains, next week.

*I leave it as an exercise for the learned reader to what degree the Emberverse series is a variation on or a departure from long fantasy series such as those by David Eddings or even R. A Salvatore.

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

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