Book Review: Tears of the Sun

This installment in the Emberverse series adds depth to the narrative, further develops familiar friends, introduces new characters, and contains a hero’s death. Mild spoilers.

Book:  Tears of the Sun
Author:  SM Stirling
Publish Date:  September 2011
Sample Chapters
Buy the book:  Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Author’s Yahoo Group
Previous PNC coverage of SM Stirling: Author’s Books Change Opinions About Paganism
WitchVox article:  Creating a Wican Tribe

Background on the series:  A mysterious event happens across the globe that results in 90% of the population dying within one year through starvation and disease. Electricity, gun powder, cars, all the things that make modern life possible stop working. These books could have come across as grim, but the author focuses on how humans band together and not only survive, but thrive in this new world they find themselves in. The books contain classic fantasy elements, but the setting and the characters are not. They are your friends and neighbors and is set in towns you live and work in.

Those that survive The Change (as the event becomes known) band together in small, isolated groups and form new, surprising cultures. After living through the horrors of those early days, people push their immediate past into the land of myths and mine myths for ways to reinvent their lives. A professor of medieval history and his SCA friends use feudal England as a model for a new society. It turns out being handy with a sword is valuable in a world where guns no longer work. A soldier turned devout monk is elevated to Abbot and the abbey becomes a fortress to guard the flock from roving bands of cannibals. Teenagers infatuated with Tolkin grow into serious scouts and caravan guards as the Dundain Rangers. Iowa, due to its ability to feed its population, becomes the most powerful area left in the old United States. Bib overalls and a feed cap become the dress of the upper class and Farmer is a title of respect. An Army officer in Boise dreams of holding the United States together and preserving the Constitution, but instead recreates the Roman Legions. A pseudo-Celtic clan is formed in Oregon when a community coalesces around a Wiccan coven with a Bard and powerful witch as a High Priestess. The Lakota once again follow the ways and Gods of their ancestors and the buffalo number in the millions.

 Tears of the Sun takes place 25 years (and 7 books) after The Change. The main hero, Rudi Mackenzie, has fulfilled his quest to find the fabled Sword of the Lady, but now he has a war to fight and win. The maxim “As above, so below” is lived out as the Gods – all of them – walk the earth and weigh in on the war. After all, the fight is really Theirs being played out among men. The book follows the leaders of the Dundain Rangers as they plan a daring rescue in the very heart of enemy territory and goes back in time a bit to cover the events happening back in the newly formed High Kingdom of Montival (formerly the NE Untied States and parts of the Midwest). Much needed information is filled in and the plot action helps advance the series, but it isn’t the action scenes that steal the show in Tears of the Sun – it’s the death of a main character and the development of another.

The death, a heroic act worthy of the character, is both shocking and anti-climatic. This seems contradictory – and it is, until you read the book. The effect of her death on those around her is hinted at, and may be profound and have far reaching consequences. But that is for another day (and another book) to explore.

The real treat for fans of the series is the developing and deepening of some of the more interesting characters. Tiphaine d’Ath, Grand Constable of the PPA (Portland Protectorate Association – a kingdom formed by SCA buffs), gets some love and attention from the author. I was happy to see her move past just being a two-dimensional, cold as ice, killer dyke in previous books and gain a stable relationship, but this book lets us see more of her internal workings. She has an extended and complex family that she enjoys nurturing. Old enemies become respected friends…or at least allies. Most interesting of all, Tiphaine, a staunch atheist, begins to develop a spiritual life. When Gods interject themselves into your affairs, even the most skeptical of atheists can no longer deny their existence.

D’Ath is injured magically and the wound becomes serious. In addition to competent medical care, she seeks spiritual help to drive out the curse infecting her body and mind. Tiphaine, always practical, forms a relationship with a Patron Goddess for protection and assistance. Gray eyed Athena (Stirling uses the Latin form of the Greek Gods’ names) is a good fit for d’Ath and the evolution from atheist to believer is believable and respectful.

Religion, especially modern Pagan religions, have become a central to the series. This is quite a feat for any author, even more impressive when you consider that Stirling is an atheist. Paganism and Pagans take center stage as the heroes in the books about the Change and answers the question so many modern Pagans have, “What would society be like if Paganism were the dominate religions?” Wiccans, who are the majority in the USA, are also the majority of Pagans in the Emberverse. There are Celtic Wiccans in Clan Mackenzie, Norse Wiccans in Bearkiller territory, and Hellenic Wiccans in the Kyklos.

All the Wiccans represented so far are  eclectic, but not “fluffy,” and display the ethics a modern Pagan would expect to see in a community of witches. Oak Barstow Mackenzie, when preparing to kill a yearling sheep, says, “So, little brother, we are sorry,” he said in a soothing, crooning voice as he stroked its head until it quieted. “But we are hungry and must eat. We thank you for your gift of life. To us also the hour of the Hunter will come, Earth must be fed. Go swiftly and without pain to the green clover meadows of the Land of Summer where no evil comes, and be reborn through Her who is Mother-of-All.”

Along with the Wiccans, there is a group of Heathens that live in Norrheim (Maine). Getting a glimpse into their culture, where Heathenry is the norm, has been fascinating. The character of Asgerd Karlsdottir captures the Heathen worldview in this passage: After courage and loyalty a man’s pride was in the strength and skill of his hands, the work he fed his children with and made strong his house and kindred. She knew that love of craft as well as, and the kindred pride in keeping going uncomplaining when your bones groaned with weariness and all you wanted in the world was food and bed.

Stirling has credited Wiccan Kier Salmon with assisting him in creating realistic Wiccan characters and Diana Paxton is noted for both inspiring the series with her Wisteria books and with helping Stirling create the Heathen community and characters by referencing her Essential Asatru and Our Troth books.

Bottom line: The entire bestselling series should be read by every Pagan. Not only is it a joy to read such positive portrayals of Pagans in this gripping, smoothly paced, and well-written series – Pagans get the unusual bonus of getting a glimpse at what Pagan communities could look like, although I wouldn’t wish the Change on anyone. Tears of the Sun, although less action packed than other books in the series, is a much needed pause to more fully flesh out the plot, the characters, and their motivations, before the stuff hits the fan in Lord of Mountains, set to publish in 2012.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Tears of the Sun

  1. Lori Dake says:

    Excellent! I love my some dystopia/utopia. Some think it’s weird, but I often fantasize about a new world, and for that to happen, I do believe it would take a SHTF/TEOTWAWKI scenario, decimating most of humanity, but of a sickness nature rather than (nuclear) war. Why should the Earth suffer so we can rebuild?

    So needless to say, I’ve always enjoyed “The Stand”, but I wish it wasn’t so black and white (evil and good), as people are not inherently all good or all bad. For example, some of the people labeled as the “bad guys” I wouldn’t consider bad at all – just going on past experiences.

    — Like the cop in Las Vegas who was formerly a detective from the Santa Monica PD. He wasn’t a bad guy exactly; he was just extremely cynical and jaded from his twenty years of service. And along comes The Walking Dude, who was efficient in bringing back order and stability, with justice delivered swiftly and severely. (Drug addicts for example were crucified along the highway as a warning of their “We don’t take no shit” policy.) That made sense to the cop, as I’m sure it did to others who “wanted their lives back”, if you catch my drift.

    — Even the Walking Dude’s right hand man wasn’t all /that bad/ of a guy. An opportunist for sure (back story as a liquor store robbery gone awry), but a loyal follower who would have served under anyone who showed interest and compassion.

    But I digress…

    This setup seems to have a lot more depth in character and community types and personalities, and I appreciate such a detailed review. I will definitely need to add this to my reading pile! Thank you!

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