Rudi MacKenzie has been moving steadily forward on what seems to be a benevolently predestined life-path: with help from a band of long-suffering friends, he’s retrieved the powerful Sword of the Lady from Nantucket. His fellowship has crossed North America and come home again, Rudi’s married the girl he’s loved for a lifetime and now he’s waiting to be crowned High King of Montival. He and his beloved Mathilda Arminger have even been blessed with prophetic visions of healthy sons and daughters.
That happily ever after hasn’t actually come to fruition, though. If Rudi’s going to bring peace to the Pacific Northwest, consolidate his newfound political power, and survive to reproduce at all, he needs to lead his people and allies to victory against the ruthless and intolerant Church Universal and Triumphant.
S.M. Stirling’s The Tears of the Sun opens by checking in with the various characters in the sprawling kingdom of Montival, a not so faraway land whose geographical center, here and now, is the Willamette Valley. After a look in on Rudi and his new bride, the story cycles past all his friends and enemies within the area affected by the war. The tour takes us as far north as the Dominion of Drumheller in Southern Alberta; this is the seventh book of the Emberverse series, and it has a vast physical stage as well as a throng of varied, well-developed characters.
Getting reacquainted and finding out what everyone’s up to takes some time, in other words. The catching up is pleasant, but as the first chapters crawl by, some readers may find themselves wishing that the darned war would just get going already. In this sense, The Tears of the Sun is typical of middle books in many another epic series. Having braided a bunch of storylines meant to span multiple novels, it’s only polite for Stirling to bring readers up to speed: he can’t assume that everyone cracking the book has read every single one of its predecessors, in order, recently and attentively enough that they remember every single detail. As a result, the ’story so far’ section is lengthy indeed. It is also warm and inviting, and has a handy flashback to a previous battle, which brisks up the pace a bit.
The other catch, of course, with epic-by-installment fantasies, is that any given novel-length chapter can only take you so far. There are at least three more books slated in the Emberverse series; The Tears of the Sun is, really, only the halfway point. You can’t go into this novel truly expecting it to stand on its own, or hoping to come out with closure on many of its subplots. Resolution is a few years away yet. (Only a few, though: Stirling is putting out new titles at a pleasantly steady rate of one a year.)
The good news—and it is genuinely good—is that the emerging kingdom of Montival is a damncool place to hang out. In this post-apocalyptic North America, Stirling has cherry-picked everything a fan might wish for in a high fantasy/apocalypse/alternate history mashup. You’ve got heroes, horses, swordplay, kings, siege engines and mystics. And all with (somewhat) less patriarchy, because the post-modern world that spawned Montival—our world—has left a big stamp of twentieth-century social progress on the society rising from its ashes.
So there are queens and women warriors and comfortably out queerfolk liberally sprinkled across the landscape, too. Meanwhile, the inns serve everything from burgers to souvlaki, the people wear kilts and blue jeans and—because of the influence of Tolkien fandom in an earlier portion of the Change story—there’s even a faction of Dunedain rangers in the mix. And that’s not all: one of the aging players on the political scene, Sandra Armitage, is a former prominent member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. She has thrived since the Change, essentially growing into new world’s Eleanor of Aquitaine. And how can you not love that?
For those of us who live in the West, the geography of Montival is, in itself, a beloved familiar character, cast in an exciting new role. Battles are fought on the remains of the highways we currently drive over. Stirling’s description of the short-grass prairies of Southern Alberta was spot on, enough so that it gave me a little pang of nostalgia.
Finally, the sweep of time in this novel is catching up with its elder characters, those—like Sandra Armitage—who remember life before the Change. As more and more people are born into the fractious, divided America of this strange future, they are increasingly at home. The fogeys who remember what the days of technology are like are just their old Nonni—people with stories about the olden days, beloved and imporant in their time, but with narratives that are fading into irrelevance. This shift grounds its audience within the greater storyline in a rather nifty way. We are ourselves, in a sense, flash-frozen in the moment before the Change occurred. The reader is both of the world these fictional generations have lost, and akin to the elders who remember losing it. It’s a terrific effect, an elegant, imaginative and thoroughly delightful use of “What if?”
As far as plot goes, I’d rather not spoil any of it. As fans of the series can expect, Stirling moves his characters through another phase of the long post-Change war, deftly offering them some good victories and a few setbacks, and leaving plenty of questions open, plenty of stories still to unfold.