Book Review: The Given Sacrifice by SM Stirling (Fiction)

The Given Sacrifice, the 10th book in The Change series by best-selling author SM Stirling, continues to explore what would happen if the lights went out for good and things like guns and bombs also stopped working. Filled with likable and realistic Pagan, Heathen, and polytheistic (and many non-Pagan) characters it portrays our rituals, ethics, and Gods as positive, vibrant, and diverse. There are also positive portrayals of several GLBT and female characters in leadership and combat roles. A wonderful mix of alternative history, post-apocalyptic fiction, and classical fantasy genres.

Book review: Lord of Mountains
Book review for Tears of the Sun (Also gives more background on the series as a whole)
Authors Books Change Opinions about Paganism

The series primarily focuses on how humans in what was the USA survive the loss of 600 years of technological progress after an event called the Change happens, which causes electricity, guns, explosives, and other methods of power production to stop working.  Approximately 90% of the population dies off and small bands of survivors form around charismatic leaders.  Some of the leaders in the Pacific Northwest and New England areas are Wiccans and Heathens. Others are Buddhist monks at a retreat, SCA members and innner city gang members who ally, a few troops of Boy Scouts who survive a plane crash, etc.  What was the modern United States is now a splintering of isolated communities that look to the past or their religion (or the Scout handbook) for inspiration and knowledge of how to survive in a Changed world. The Given Sacrifice takes place 26 years after the Change.

The_Given_Sacrifice_coverSeries: Change Series
Publisher: Roc
Available: September 3, 2013 in multiple formats
ISBN-10: 0451417313
ISBN-13: 978-0451417312
Sample Chapters: The first 10 chapters of The Given Sacrifice are here
First Book in the series:
Dies The Fire, Sample chapters here

Knowing the title of the book it’s not a spoiler to announce that the main character of the past four books (or the past 7 – depending on how you look at it), High King of Montival Rudi Mackenzie, dies. He’s been fated to die for the land since he was born and readers pick up the book knowing this will happen. Knowing how the book ends, can the author hold attention and not stoop to maudlin tear whoring? Absolutely.

The first 2/3rds of the book brings the Cutter War, a war for humanity’s very survival, to a successful conclusion with Wiccan Rudi Mackenzie and Catholic Mathilda Arminger as the main characters. Just under half of what was the United States is once again united as the Kingdom of Montival, a loose federation of independent and highly varied governments, people, and cultures. Other characters, sure to be a focus in future books, are fleshed out or introduced. The last 1/3 of the book is a series of vignettes that show consolidation of the kingdom through the eyes of Rudi and Mathilda’s Wiccan daughter, the Crown Princess Orlaith and her female squire, Heuradys, a Hellenic Pagan.

Montival, under High King Rudi and High Queen Mathilda, have won several decisive battles against the villains of the tale, the Church Universal and Triumphant (AKA, the Cutters). The Cutter’s reluctant allies, the United States of Boise, are still a formidable force but defections have weakened their numbers. As Rudi considers the populations of both Boise and the Cutter territories his future subjects, he’s trying to win a war against ruthless and skilled opponents with as little bloodshed and hard feelings as possible. The final battles are a mix of straight out war, a fierce spiritual battle in another plane of existence, enemies turned allies, and guile. It’s refreshing to read a tale of war that doesn’t glory in killing or is filled with weapon porn, yet is still filled with intense action and plausible military strategy.

“I’m tired of winning battles!” [Rudi] said, controlling the flush of anger. “I’m tired of killing brave men whose only fault was to be born in the wrong place and to get levied from the plow! I want to win this bloody war, and get back to my proper work and my family and let everyone else do the same!”

Exploring the extremely varied communities of the post Change world, and seeing how they developed from something familiar and mundane to something extreme is one of the most fascinating aspects of the series.  Each book gives us both a tease of one of these communities and a longer visit to one previously teased. The Morrowlanders (aka The Scouts) almost stole the show when they appeared in just a few pages of The Scourge of God and I was thrilled we got a longer look at them in this book. The Morrowlanders, who consist of a few troops of Boy, Cub, and Girl Scouts, crash landed in a remote wooded area when the Change hit.  Cut off from outsiders in a cold, wooded environment on a lake, the few surviving adults quickly die or are killed trying to care for the children in their charge. One of the older children, a badly burned and injured Eagle Scout, uses the Scouting handbook to help the group of mostly young children survive and they cling to the Scout Law with a religious fervor. Almost 30 years later they are a warrior tribe who place a high value knowledge, honor, and skill. Learning more about how this group survived and evolved is both charming and heartbreaking. This is the anti-Lord of the Flies and is an example of how Stirling takes a different tack on post-apocalyptic literature. The fate of a group of boys left to survive on their own could have come across as grisly and depressing, but the author focuses on how humans band together and not only survive, but thrive in this new world they find themselves in.

The group that is teased in The Given Sacrifice won’t be a minor group. Their land will be the main stage for the next set of books in the series and we are barely introduced to them in the final vignette of the book. Rudi is taking a now adult Princess Orlaith on a tour of newly settled lands in what was California wine country. You’ll see many familiar faces in the settlers as Bearkillers, Dundain, and Mackenzies’ are all expanding into the area. A group of strangers has arrived by boat and are under attack by pirates. If the Montivalians don’t intercede the strangers will soon be wiped out. Rudi makes the decision to come to their aid and, since the battle is won, we find out who these visitors are. Folks, the Land of the Rising Sun once again has an Empress and, due to an act that will enrage all of Montival, we will be heading to the Pacific Basin along with Orlaith and a new generation of heroes.  As was foreshadowed earlier in The Given Sacrifice when Orlaith was still a baby, we’ll learn just how Changed the world is when this third generation comes to power.

“Just now,” Sandra said, tickling the tip of the baby [Orlaith’s] nose with one finger as she smiled and kicked, “it struck me that I should wonder what the world will be like when Órlaith’s generation is in charge… people who never knew the people who knew the world before the Change. When she’s my age it will be… Good Lord, it’ll be Change Year 84! Nearly a century! Will they really believe anything about our world by then, except as myths? And of course her children…” From chapter six, The Given Sacrifice 

We’ll find that out in The Golden Princess, the next book in the series, scheduled for publication in September of 2014. For now, enjoy The Given Sacrifice. I did!

Editor’s note:  I was provided an advance reader’s copy of the book for the purpose of writing a review. I was also asked by the author for suggestions on a section of The Golden Princess that has a Hellenic ritual.