Friday, 13 February 2015

Why I Love/Hate the Emberverse


Hey there readers I'm just here to talk about a particular series that is both very near, and very far, from my heart.

S.M. Stirling was, in my teen years, one of my favorite writers. He can craft amazing worlds, write some fairly catchy dialogue, and turns out scenarios that are at times so wild that you can't help but be sucked in (I don't think I will ever forget the skirmish with bandits where the protagonists take refuge in what turns out to be an abandoned pornographic store in The Protector's War). And he has written many excellent adventure books, Conquistador, and the Peshawar Lancers which are just too fun to read. He of course is also the author of the infamous Draka series which has probably been picked over as much as A Song of Ice and Fire for details.

However, he is probably currently most famous for his newest (and longest running) series, the Emberverse. The basic premise is that on March 17th 1998, at 6:15 pm a worldwide event known as the Change disables all electronic technology, and even alters the laws of physics which prevents gunpowder and even steam technology from functioning properly, in an instant thrusting humanity back several centuries. The first book in the series (Dies the Fire) follows an excellently written post-apocalyptic scenario where two groups struggle to survive in this fundamentally changed world.

The book follows an interesting cast of characters as they build a new world (even reality) out of the ashes of the old, some good and some bad. The different societies and nations which emerge are fascinating, and the characters themselves are just great. That's not to say they don't go through some hardship. Though from the individual duels and skirmishes, to the sweeping battles of the later series each battle scene is a joy to read and amazingly detailed with twists and turns around every corner.

You have former marine Mike Havel who leads a motley band of survivors in a quest for safety across the Mid West after having survived a plane crash, and Juniper Mackenzie, a Wiccan priestess who bards her way across Oregon who leads her own group to her inherited cabin in the Williamite Valley. Mike founds a warrior society of soldier settlers who take their own territory and hold it against all comers, while Juniper founds a neo-Celtic clan that adopts its new identity with gusto that makes even its founder slightly uncomfortable. These societies develop into things of their own, well beyond their founders intentions in interesting ways.

The first trilogy in the series is fantastic, well fitted together and each book has a tight narrative that you can really sink your teeth into. I will shamelessly admit that they are some of my favorite books of all time, and I have probably read each one at least three times. Mike Havel, Astrid, Juniper, and Nigel Loring are a four very interesting characters who grope their way through a changed world and establish themselves and the groups they bring with them as a new nation, each with its own very unique quirks. They are shaped by the presence of a central antagonist in the form of the neo-feudalist warlord Norman Arminger and his hyper-competent wife Sandra.

While the series tends to present things on unashamedly black and white lines (good guys good, bad guys bad) it doesn't detract from the superb world building, and some of the greatest battle scenes in fiction. The books all tied together well, and presented a compelling story about leadership, survival, and change.

Imagine my pleasant surprise at hearing that a new saga for the Emberverse would be appearing all the way back in 2007. This saga got off to a great start, with an interesting new cast of characters and the promise of exploring more of post-Change North America. We even had amazing new villains in the form of the scary dogmatic religious CUT (Church Universal and Triumphant) and its Prophet, Sethaz.

Now don't get me wrong, these books got off to an amazing start, but they started to teeter on the edge of disappointing very swiftly.

Though I should start by saying that Stirling's skill at world building has not decreased, and the books continue to be amazing romps through a totally different world (which technically counts as alternate history) with the amazing innovations and different survival techniques we've come to see, the force driving that adventure however, diminishes significantly with each volume.

There's no shortage of interesting characters. We have the mercenary salvage man from out East, Ingolf Vogeler, the son of amazing archer extraordinaire Edaine Alyward (and his lovable pooch Gabranth), Father Ignatius from the amazing Knight Templar-esque monks of Mount Angel, and Odard Lieu, son of a villain from the previous trilogy. We also have returning characters in the form of the all-grown up Matilda Arminger (only daughter of the villain Norman Arminger) the twin daughters of Mike Havel, Ritva and Mary, and finally the bastard child of Mike and clan chief and priestess Juniper Mackenzie, Rudi.

I think many readers will understand why I list him last.

At the heart of the series problems from here on in really is this one character. While we have a cast of excellent supporting characters, but they tend to take the back burner whenever Rudi is on screen. Rudi is a very dull, uninteresting, and very poorly executed heroic character whose very presence tends to drag down the novel. In fact he renders almost every other character inconsequential. The main villain of the series (Sethaz) gets progressively less and less screen time until he effectively becomes mostly background noise with only his secondary villains having any screen time at all, and even then its fairly secondary to the plot. He can really do no wrong, and this is outrageously demonstrated in one scene where Matilda overhears a conversation where it sounds as though he is having an affair with another woman and sets up what could be some amazing character drama...only for the next chapter to start with how she was wrong because when she asked Rudi whether he was cheating on her he angrily said no. For me at least that really torpedoed any sense of realism in character development.

The overarching plot of this saga isn't even bad. It's a quest to find a magic sword which will counter the influence of the a dark power which is feared to be rising alongside the CUT. This is backed up by the trials and tribulations of the questers as they cross the vast expanse of North America and run into local politics, CUT allies, savage neobarbarians, and being constantly pursued by CUT fanatics. Some very fun adventures take place amongst the new Sioux nation (with a gripping event involving buffalo) and we get an in depth look at the new nation of Iowa, arguably the most powerful nation in North America now, with a bevy of satellite states surrounding her in the crop rich plains. There's even a great background story about things back home with the war!

The problem again though, is Rudi. The book often goes out of its way to break the "show don't tell" rule when we run into him, and characters will spend pages talking about all the reasons you should like him and all the reasons why he is amazing, and why he is such a good leader. None of this is actually shown to us the readers (unlike with previous archetypal leaders like Juniper or Mike) and we have Rudi with many informed abilities. He is never in any clear danger as he is absolutely unbeatable in combat (which before we see this many other characters spend a good deal of time informing us) and even the sub plot back home tends to devolve around describing how awesome a leader Rudi will be. Despite suffering a serious wound at one point, it doesn't even wind up seriously inconveniencing him as the series goes on. His presence drains any tension from the books and you don't even fear for his friends as things continue. In fact his friends situations get even less screen time and very little development beyond off hand mentions of things happening or a few scenes here and there.

The books from The Scourge of God on really suffer thanks to this. To me, the ultimate disappointment came when we arrived at The Lord of the Mountains where the series had been building up to an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. Now as I've mentioned Stirling can write amazing battle scenes, and with a series that has airships and hot air balloons still being a practical thing the immense undertaking that is plotting and portraying this battle should have been easy for him. Instead we have a series of incredibly underwhelming build ups and an absolutely disappointing let down with a waste of all the books potential epic moments which flop spectacularly in showing us the culminating battle between good and evil. From wasted pages describing the teenage adventures of two squires who are supposed to deliver a message, to simple scenes of meetings where the good guys cheerfully predict their victory over their foes. The book has zero tension, and in an ultimate sin manages to make what should have been an amazing battle boring and utterly unengaging.

However, the novels afterwards have been, well, not incredibly interesting. Despite much tension of when Rudi is supposed to die (a prophecy that he will not live to see his first gray hair) the books play it fairly tamely and he simply dies before he gets any gray in his hair, in middle age. He lives a long healthy life, and becomes a great king. Again we don't really see any of this and are for the most part informed of it by other characters.

The most recent release, The Golden Princess, is now primed to follow a new set of characters into a new quest, for a new sword.

While this one promises to be more nautical, and somewhat more engaging in that it will take readers from the deserts of California to Australia, and finally Japan, it has thus far disappointed. I can say with absolute confidence that people should wait until the follow up volume, The Desert and the Blade, comes out. You will find yourself much more satisfied, since Princess is very lacking in plot advancement versus overflowing with obligatory scenes where characters talk about how amazing Rudi is and describe the very technical feudal terms for feudal government and the neo-Celtic lifestyle. The story honestly just seems to cut off half way through, so I hope the new book will pick up where we left off.

In spite of  the series great  flaw with an unrelatable hero, it does mostly play to Stirlings strengths of world building, battle, and adventure. And you know what? That's a good thing. People may not like the characters, and I'm one of them, but the world Stirling builds is so detailed and intricate that you can't help but want to explore it. He crafts some amazing societies which you will find yourself going back and reading about just to catch glimpses of them. He paints a hauntingly beautiful picture of a completely changed North America built on the bones of our old civilization, and its wonderful.

Though I may not have cared to deeply for the meat of the second saga, I reiterate my love for the first trilogy and recommend it as an excellent series to anyone who wants to enjoy a good book. Stirling is still a good writer, and while it may take a while for the new books to get into the swing of things I fully expect that like the previous books it will contain some amazing gems that will leave you saying "Holy Crap! Did that just happen!?"

It has for me, and I hope it will for many others.

1 comment:

  1. I gave up after the first trilogy. Brilliant idea, some early strong points, but overwhelmed by so many of Sterling's worst tendencies, even before scratching how unbearable Rudi and the Wiccansues are.