I’ve spent a lot of time in the Emberverse. More time than I would like to contemplate in detail or admit. S.M. Stirling got me hooked on his post-apocalyptic, post-electricity-and-gunpowder world during the first three books in the series (also known separately as the Change Series). Then he tossed the characters out 25 years and wrote seven more books, the latest of which came out in September 2013 (The Given Sacrifice) and that, says the S.M. Stirling website, “can also be seen as the last book of the Montival (Emberverse III) series.” Except, haha, just kidding, in September 2014 The Golden Princess will be released as the start of “a new ‘Emberverse’ series.”
Just to be clear, the series is full of mini-series and goes like this:
The Change Series: Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War, and A Meeting at Corvallis
The Sunrise Lands Series: The Sunrise Lands, The Sword of the Lady, The Scourge of God
The Montival Series: The High King of Montival, The Tears of the Sun, Lord of Mountains
The Sacrifice Book: The Given Sacrifice
Originally it looked like there would be two more books in The Sacrifice Book threesome (hardeeharharhar), but now he’s decided to end all that and take up a new story involving Japan (I heard him read the first chapter at World Con 2013). I have read up to The Tears of the Sun, and it has been a lot of fun, but what I find myself asking myself is: should I really keep reading this shit? I became attached to the characters long ago, and I would like to know how the story finally plays out, if it ever plays out. But the little things that bothered me about Stirling’s writing in the first three books have become big giant angry rhinoceros things that I can no longer ignore. How long am I willing to keep going? Is there really any reason to? Am I just holding onto a bad relationship out of habit? Do I still even care what happens to these characters?
Sigh. And yet, while reading The Tears of the Sun and asking myself this question, I knew I would probably keep reading until the end. This must be why publishers are so into doing series right now. They know something about attachment, about addiction, about how a loyal reader will finish a series no matter how much half of the later books end up sucking.
The second stretch of books focuses on the children of the characters from the first trilogy, and they are an interesting bunch, if not always very likeable or deeply developed. The action takes them across the former United States and back, and the descriptions of all the new cultures that have sprung up around pockets of survivors kept me going when the writing got rough or the story slowed down (or became more about war tactics than I found interesting). But as the series progresses, the story—and many of the characters—veer off into esoteric cartoon land. Suddenly this isn’t a story about building a new civilization after the end of the world. Suddenly this is a story about a modern King Arthur, a magic sword, and an evil demon-esque adversary. While I can enjoy this kind of story as well, it really isn’t what I signed up for, particularly not considering the clumsiness of its construction.
Stirling’s chronology problem
So he does this thing. He starts telling a story. Then a character in that story starts telling a story and after an annoyingly long heading explaining the whens and wheres of this change of time and place that is supposed to clarify but mostly just annoys, the story switches to a first-hand version of the story being retold one layer up. Inside that story we might be taken to yet another story, then back to the original telling, then back, then back again. The entirely of The Tears of the Sun felt like a game of rather confusing and unnecessary ping-pong. Can the man not manage a direct chronology? Or does he think he’s doing something interesting and cool? Either way: annoying. And confusing. Fucking cut it out Stirling. Gah.
Yet in spite of himself, Stirling manages to tell an intriguing tale. Even when he fucks up an entire book (The Tears of the Sun) with too many chronology jumps, too little of the interesting characters, and too much war, he manages to pull you back into the suspense at the very end with a cliffhanger promising that the ultimate bad guy is about to show up and put up a really great fight. It feels cheap and it probably is—do I smell an editor who insisted Stirling end The Tears of the Sun this way?—but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.
To read or not to read
Neither. Run. Now. Fast. Pretend you’ve never heard the name Stirling or the word Emberverse. You will save yourself hours and headaches as you curse Stirling for his warped structure. If you’re curious, well, borrow, but I’m warning you, once you get a taste you will probably end up addicted, forced to keep reading and buying. This is crack people, crack! It feels real good for a while, but ultimately, it’s not very good for your brain.
So when can I get a copy of Lord of the Mountains in paperback?? Nomnomnomnom.
Where I got them: Hugendubel, Frankfurt am Main, Germany