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Fantasy Literature: The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth edited by S. M. Stirling

Fantasy Literature: The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth edited by S. M. Stirling

The Change Tales of Downfall and Rebirth-smallIn The Change, the author of the Emberverse novels opens the doors to his post-apocalyptic universe wide. A substantial text at more than 600 pages, it contains 16 stories and an introduction by S.M. Stirling, who also contributes “Hot Night at the Hopping Toad,” featuring the most contemporary protagonist of the Emberverse series, Orlaith.

Sterling’s series has seen extensive attention here in the Fantasy Literature column at Black Gate. Those entries were less reviews than low brow scholarly chatter about the many interesting features, issues, and aspects of the Emberverse. This, however, is a review. But what is this Emberverse?

In short, the Emberverse begins with something commonly called the Change (some tales here call it other things, of course). In 1997 all high-energy technologies cease to function — something tweaked the rules of physics. Guns won’t fire. Electricity doesn’t electricit. Even steam engines won’t steam — at least not usefully. While the sun burns on, here on Earth, the technological culture we take for granted grinds to a halt. Billions die by violence, through hunger, and from disease.

Some small number survive; Stirling’s early novels in the series describe the events of the Change and the first ten or so years; 2014’s novel, The Golden Princess, features the granddaughter of various key players of the recovery from the Change in the Pacific northwest: Orlaith Mackenzie. A lot of war and politics lies behind the cutting edge of the series, but these stories take place at various points in the chronology of the Emberverse.

The first question: can a reader new to the Emberverse read and enjoy this anthology? Yes.

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Fantasy Literature: Caine’s Law & the End of the Show

Fantasy Literature: Caine’s Law & the End of the Show

Caine's Law (The Acts of Caine, Book 4)
Caine’s Law (The Acts of Caine, Book 4)

These blogs, looking at low-key critical issues in fantasy literature, are not reviews. That’s a good thing, because if this were a review, Caine’s Law would not fare well.

This concluding text of Matthew Stover’s The Acts of Caine experiments with narrative in an interesting way. In science, there is no such thing as a failed experiment. However, when an experiment leaves the lab a stinking, smelly ruin…

Fictional narratives sometimes play games with chronology. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 represents the stock example. There, the exact timing of Snowden’s death is concealed by Heller’s playful use of time. Readers experience the consequence of Snowden’s death, the archetypal rock hitting still pond water, by reading through concentric ring-waves taken out of order from the signal event, until at a critical moment in the text the scene of Snowden’s death plays out for the reader. Each of those ring-waves remains coherent, through thematic markers, repeated tropes, and interlaced imagery.

Stover attempts much the same trick in Caine’s Law. Alas, no. Here is the fig leaf Stover offers his reader:

Author’s Note

Several parts of this story take place before the events depicted in Act of Atonement Book I, Caine Black Knife.

Other parts of this story take place after. Still other parts take place before and after both. Some parts may be imaginary, and some were real only temporarily, as they have subsequently unhappened.

But this does not cover the jumble the novel presents the reader. By attempting an end-run around the familiar noir formula the worked with books 1 and 3, Stover loses his reader in the weeds.

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Fantasy Literature: Caine Black Knife

Fantasy Literature: Caine Black Knife

Caine Black Knife Warning StickerWe continue through Matthew Stover’s Caine novels (following our look at Blade of Tyshalle last week), not by reviewing them, but by calling certain aspects to the attention of readers. Spoilers afoot.

Blade of Tyshalle represented a big shift in scope and narrative approach from Heroes Die. Stover broke the mold, did not continue the series with a fast-punching short novel but instead drafted a much longer and ultimately more introspective novel. Where in Heroes Die Caine saves his wife and defeats his (several) enemies, and seriously inconveniences a god along the way, Blade of Tyshalle follows Caine as he saves Overworld from earth’s colonial clutches via the convenient outlet of saving his daughter from sundry baddies. He ends Heroes Die with limited mobility on earth thanks to a spinal injury, and finishes Blade of Tyshalle with magic-assisted mobility on Overworld.

Blade ends with Overworld shutting the door on earth and its greedy fingers. Some of those fingers remain on Overworld, and those fingers, naturally, want to go home. In the years between Blade and Caine Black Knife Caine serves Ma’elkoth as an enforcer, suffering the god’s personal presence in his head. For the convenience of the plot and narrative, the god’s presence is much reduced. The super-powers Caine uses in the epilogue of Blade vanish, too.

Ma’elkoth still makes his presence felt, and the novel opens with a vision of Caine’s adopted brother, an Ogrilloi (think: Ogre), getting into a bit of trouble, right at the scene of Caine’s breakout success as an actor. The novel runs on parallel tracks, following Caine’s adventure “RETREAT FROM THE BOEDECKEN.” Stover playfully includes a warning “sticker” regarding this material (above left).

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Fantasy Literature: Blade of Tyshalle

Fantasy Literature: Blade of Tyshalle

Blade of Tyshalle, sequel to Heroes DieMatthew Stover’s sequel to Heroes Die (which we discussed last week) begins not in media res but in deep prologue, establishing a new perspective character who meets and becomes friend to a 19-year old Hari Michaelson. Hari, sponsored by the “gangster” businessman Marc Vilo into the Studio Conservatory, the institution that trains actors to “risk their lives in interesting ways” on Overworld, nearly flunks out of battlemage school.

Vilo won’t have that; the Conservatory administrator forces a top student to mentor Hari, and after some kilometers of narrative the top student and Hari both get what they want. Several stock school bully characters end up in the hospital — but that’s an occupational hazard of getting in Hari Michaelson’s way.

Hari has it all, but of course he’s miserable, some seven years after victory over his foes in Heroes Die. Former Studio boss Kollberg works as a temp laborer; Ma’elkoth (“Limitless”) is now Tan’elkoth (“I was Limitless”) and works for the Studio. He calls Hari “Caine” and Hari himself runs the San Francisco Studio — badly, as one might expect of a man with limited executive experience.

Two significant sections in to Blade of Tyshalle and as Kollberg once complained after sending Caine to Overworld, nobody has even been killed yet.

Better, perhaps, to skip to the arresting scene in which a frazzled, semi-disabled Studio boss Hari Michaelson views a feed from one of his actors, Rossi. Rossi, part of a soap-opera like entertainment project, works as a sort of private investigator on Overworld. He’s been captured and knocked out.

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Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die & We Killed the Blonde

Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die & We Killed the Blonde

Heroes Die Matthew Woodring Stover-small

She would never forget the surge that had slammed up her spine when a shout of dismay had risen from the vast ranks of the Horde, and she had looked down to the battlefield to see the huge banner of the Khulan himself burn with smoking yellow flame.

Among Talann’s gifts was extraordinary vision; like an eagle, she could see — even from a mile or more away — the black clothes and fringe of beard on the man who held the burning banner up for a moment longer, then cast it down to the mud-churned earth at his feet. She had watched breathlessly, mesmerized, her duties forgotten, as the Bear Guard closed around him like the jaws of a dragon, and a tear had tracked through the dust of her cheeks for the death of this unknown hero — but an instant later, she saw him again, still alive, still fighting, cutting through the finest warriors of the Khulan Horde as the prow of a warship cuts through waves.

Thus was a hero born on Overworld, a hero born of heroic deeds witnessed first hand, at a pivotal moment — one of the pivotal moments of this not-quite-parallel earth — in the history of Overworld. Talann, a military page in a human-centric military order, watches a battle lost turn to a battle won. Caine, of course, toppled the enemy standard, killed the great enemy leader, single-handedly saving Ankhana, a human-centric polity, from “the infinite savage warriors of the Khulan Horde.” Ogres, as it happens. Like in the tales of old, they eat humans.

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Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die and That’s Your Fault

Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die and That’s Your Fault

Heroes Die Matthew Woodring Stover-smallIn my April 18th column, I gave a quick overview of Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die. In the novel, actor Hari Michaelson travels to Overworld, a near-parallel earth rich in fantasy tropes and memes, and lives the Adventuring life of Caine for the benefit of the rich, plugged into their full-sensory couches. Caine’s adventures also sell well on the secondary market as recordings.

This book takes your grand pappy’s fantasy book out back for a savage beating, steals its lunch money, and drives off with your grand pappy’s (ex) girlfriend, laughing all the way. Stover hybridizes away in Heroes Die (do your homework; read earlier Fantasy Literature blogs on the work of S. M. Stirling). Michaelson hails from a future dystopian earth, complete with a rigid caste system and a police state, and plenty of action occurs there.

Heroes Die appears to fulfill the terms of a Portal Fantasy. Brush up on your Mendlesohn (Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy) to see what I mean. Readers of this novel are hidden observers; no particular allowance is made for us, this allows and requires for sophisticated narrative techniques that reveal the imaginary world to readers as they proceed.

But while we readers visit Overworld from the beginning of the novel, as Michaelson experiences one of his own recordings of a past exploit, and while Michaelson visits Overworld several times, we need to look beyond the obvious elements that suggest “portal quest.”

The fact that this portal is used often suggests this is not a portal fantasy — or not just a portal fantasy. The world readers explore is not Overworld, or earth. It is both; the worlds are in fact one fictional setting.

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Fantasy Literature: Murder Hobos, Sad Puppies, and Change

Fantasy Literature: Murder Hobos, Sad Puppies, and Change

Will Murder Enemies for Food

You cannot step twice into the same rivers.
Heraclitus of Ephesus

In my personal history, role-playing games, or back then Dungeons & Dragons, presented a fantasy milieu straight out of Tolkien and Leiber. The heroes — characters — fought enemies, took their treasure, and hoped for bigger and better enemies and bigger and better treasures. The rules created an expectation that high-level characters would seek political power, ultimately retiring from a lifestyle now mockingly or cheerfully (depending on one’s orientation) called that of the “Murder Hobo.” In short, characters hoped to graduate from “Murder Hobo” to “Murder Duke.”

How amusing to hear that term, which seems to spring from the recent past (2011? Anyone?) and see it unlock a whole understanding of a genre that did not previously exist. For while gamer blogs and discussion lists alternately bemoan or celebrate the Murder Hobo habit, there is an entirely different interpretation. The idea that fantasy RPG, D&D-style characters in general definition are homeless wanderers who kill and steal reveals a perspective on the whole concept of fantasy role-playing games that is distinctly contemporary.

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Fantasy Literature: Fun with Stirling’s Emberverse Series

Fantasy Literature: Fun with Stirling’s Emberverse Series

S. M. Stirling Dies The Fire-smallSince the beginning of Fantasy Literature: The Blog, each week witnessed another look at one, or half, or even two books of Stirling’s Emberverse series, the novels that tell the manifestly alternate history occurring after The Change, a world-wide calamity which killed billions via changing the Rules of Physics in some subtle way — gunpowder fizzles, electricity unzaps, even steam barely makes engines turn.

We humans, perched atop a technological marvel of mechanized farms and food distribution, become the masters of muscle-powered civilization in an instant. Well, the survivors become masters, though as with many things, some masters are more equal than others.

Antics ensue. Then a generation after the change, more antics follow, and a generation after that the antics have begun again, for the series is still spitting out sequels every fall, like clockwork.

Stirling has authored several short stories and has edited a collection of stories set in the Emberverse (Volume II? Call me, man!), so the fun continues apace. In this critic’s humble estimation, this sequence of books would make an excellent animated series: it would cost too much to do live-action, except as a blockbuster film, and a blockbuster film wouldn’t be, couldn’t be? true to the spirit of the thing.

But what do I know?

I know it is time to have some fun with the Emberverse. So without further ado, here are some amusements.

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Fantasy Literature: The Given Sacrifice & The Golden Princess

Fantasy Literature: The Given Sacrifice & The Golden Princess

The Given Sacrifice-smallThis blog, ten books in to S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series, and seven books into the tale of High King Artos and his war against the Church Universal and Triumphant — or, more particularly, the eldritch forces that drive them, discusses the two most recent books set in Stirling’s post-Change world. Spoilers exist.

As previously discussed, the accumulated wear & tear of series fiction weighs down this novel. Reminders eerily like the reminders one read in the previous novel which are fundamentally the same reminders one read in the one before that (and so on, and so forth) allow that rare creature, the reader new to the series, to make his or her way through the text without too much confusion. A slow, laborious way, for now the reminders consist of genuinely Old News. One nearly believes they pad the novel for length rather than provide necessary backstory.

In any event, the United States of Boise is returned to fully human rule through stealth; it seems Fred Thurston knows of a secret way into the walled city. Between the efforts of skullduggery, the Sword of the Lady, and some Boise troops under a false flag, the mighty bastion is taken without an expensive and lengthy seige.

Stirling amuses his readers by describing in greater detail the people of Yellowstone; when the Change knocked all aircraft out of the sky a 747 carrying girl and boy scouts landed in the wilderness. The scurvy but skilled hired tracker who lost at the game of swords with Ritva Havel is one of this band, who accrue badges and spout Scoutisms. High King Artos makes them an ally, and brings the fight to the CUT proper.

Slave farms, breeding programs, children thrown into battle — the CUT are bad guys, and no mistake. But the once reviled, now esteemed Major Graber, leading a guerilla effort against his former masters, joins the fight, and he will play a role in post CUT Montana & Wyoming.

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Fantasy Literature: Lord of Mountains or An Exercise of Wishful Thinking

Fantasy Literature: Lord of Mountains or An Exercise of Wishful Thinking

Lord of Mountains-smallThis blog has discussed S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse in some detail for the past several months. Beware spoilers as we move on to Lord of Mountains, Stirling’s 2012 addition to the series.

The logical second third of the post-quest novel Tears of the Sun, Lord of Mountains is the Act II confrontation that follows logically from the Act I setup, and coming before The Given Sacrifice‘s Act III, resolution. That these three chapters, published separately as novels, did not appear together under the same cover is a pity.

As previously discussed, the amount of “recap” material included with each is now crippling any loyal reader’s enjoyment of the texts. In fact, even new readers now feel the grit in the gears, as every time a character new to the individual text — for example, the first time Ingolf the Wanderer appears in Tears, Lord, and Given paragraphs of material is provided to foreground the character. Unfortunately, that background is now long behind Ingolf, and the current action of the narrative. And besides, how many readers are genuinely picking up the Nth book in this series, cold? And need to be reminded? Like, that one guy in Missouri, right? Yeah, you in the hat.

Would that this need be done only one time in one larger novel of three parts. First, the overall text would shrink considerably. Second, the sense of immersion would increase (and loyal readers of this blog remember what value we genre readers place on immersion, right?). Third, the narrative would flow more naturally.

As a Bush-era Secretary of Defense once opined, one goes to war with the army one has, not the army one wished one had. This sentiment is echoed by a character in Lord of Mountains, and it applies to the novels, or extended chapters, that continue to arrive annually. Perhaps in some future republication they can be packaged together, but even then would it pay for Stirling to take the time to thin the herd of redundant descriptions? Surely not.

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