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.

Book review: Lord of Mountains

Every time I introduce a Pagan to the Emberverse series by SM Stirling, they curse my name.

This is not an unusual reaction and it’s one shared by non-Pagans, too.  I’ve lost seven copies of the first book in the series, Dies the Fire, because the persons who borrowed them from me lent them out to others.  And so on.  Then they all curse my name for turning them on to such an addictive series.  The series is addictive to Pagans because it spells out one of our fantasies – what would it be like if our religions were dominate in the community we live in?  Or at least one of the dominate religions? If our rituals, our ethics, our Gods were unabashedly the norm and seen as positive and vibrant and diverse.

The series primarily focuses on how the characters 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 those leaders are Wiccans and Heathens. Others are not.  (You’ll be amazed at what a troop of Eagle Scouts turns into)  What was the modern United States is now a splintering of isolated communities that look to the past for inspiration and knowledge of how to survive.

Book review for Tears of the Sun
Authors Books Change Opinions about Paganism

Lord of Mountains, the 9th book in this series, continues to paint our fantasy with likable and realistic Pagan (and many non-Pagan) characters set a generation after The Change.

Book:  Lord of Mountains
Author:  SM Stirling
Publisher: Roc
336 pages, Hardcover

This title will be released on September 4, 2012.

Available in hardcover, Kindle, and Nook, and audio book/CD formats.

Lord of Mountains is structured differently than any of the other books in the series.  Almost 2/3rds of the book is concentrated on a few critical days in the middle of a war for humanity’s very survival.  The remaining 1/3 is filled with short glimpses and vignettes of the aftermath.   Forming a true kingdom out of scattered and very diverse communities.  It’s also, as is often the case in this series, filled with magic.

Wiccan Rudi Mackenzie and Catholic Mathilda Arminger continue to be the main characters in this novel, but like the previous book (Tears of the Sun) Lord of Mountains is expanding on lesser known characters while it advances towards the final conclusion of the entire 10 book series.  It’s also, through dramatic scenes towards the end, opening up the series for two other  possible trilogies.  Most of the book takes place in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, which is now called Montival.

After being on the defensive and losing considerable territory, Montival, under High King Rudi and High Queen Mathilda, have won a few battles against the villains of the tale, the Church Universal and Triumphant. Now we are ready for the decisive battle, the one that could drive the invaders out of Montival. If they are successful, the dream of a united realm covering much of Central and Western US has a chance.  If not, it’s not just Montival that will suffer.  Yet even with the stakes this high unity is hard to achieve and some community leaders are willing to put personal ambition and petty arguments before survival.  Rudi and Mathilda solve this by taking part in a ritual ceremony that bind them and their descendants to the people(and the ancestors) and the land.

“The land has accepted us, the ancestors and the Powers,” [Rudi] said.  “Our blood has been bound to the land and the folk, and so it shall remain so long as our line does – unless the sea rise and drown us, or the sky fall and crush us, or the world end.”

This book is the deep breath before the final plunge, but it doesn’t feel like you’re treading water.  The battle scenes are pivotal and you relish the opportunity to get closer acquainted with minor characters who are obviously essential in the final book.  There is also a death that is heavily foreshadowed, and yet hits you like a ton of bricks.  SM Stirling is not as brutal in killing off scores main characters as George R.R. Martin, but he doesn’t shy away from it, either.  Stirling provides a valuable, and confident, service to his readers that I wish more authors would provide – he posts 1/3 to 1/2 of each book he writes online as a sample.  You can try before you buy.  You will buy.

As usual, SM Stirling delivers a rich world readers want to live in.  Fully formed and alive characters you wish you could drink a beer with or follow into battle.  Because of the diversity of cultures you experience in the series, there’s somewhere for every person to dream about, there’s a home for you in the Emberverse.  When Pagans attend festivals attendees shout “Welcome home!” to them.  Because they are home, they are where their people are.  Every time you open one of Stirling’s Emberverse books the characters shout, “Welcome home!”  These books are where your people are.

Editor’s note:  I was provided an advance reader’s copy of the book for the purpose of writing a review.  

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.

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Editorial – Author’s Books Change Opinions About Paganism

Books have always had a powerful impact within the Pagan community, the two best examples being Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land’s influence on The Church of All Worlds and Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.  However, while these books influenced the Pagan community internally or helped Seekers realize that Paganism exists as an option, they didn’t affect non-Pagans’ perceptions about our religions.  The Paganism depicted was either too easily dismissed from serious thought as too vague, too exotic to be connected to anything in real life.  One author who is changing non-Pagans’ perceptions of our religions through realistic Pagan characters is S.M. Stirling.

The books are set in a contemporary post-apocalyptic America and many of the main characters and heroes of the tales are Pagans of some variety.  For a look at what the books are about please see this article.

SM Stirling (center) with Charles Morrison (left) and Greg Dalen (right)

Mr. Stirling was in town Tuesday on a promotional tour for his new book, The High King of Montival.  The book is the fourth in the Sunrise Lands series, which is a continuation of the Dies the Fire series.  I entered Uncle Hugo’s book store excited at the prospect of having Stirling sign my Nook.  Yes, I am that much of a geek.  I was also excited at the prospect of talking to some of my fellow non-Pagan book geeks to judge the impact of Stirling’s books.

Greg Dalen and Charles Morrison were happy to talk about all things Stirling.  When asked what they liked about the Dies the Fire books, Dalen said, “I don’t like how in most post-apocalyptic literature they end up with everyone fighting everyone.  That’s not realistic.  People would organize.  People would pull together like the Clan Mackenzie. (the Wiccan group formed by main character Juniper Mackenzie)  The characters are gripping.”

The characters are gripping and the author’s understanding of Wicca and Heathenry is both deep and nuanced.  When asked, in a separate interview, how he accomplished that feat, Stirling responded, “Partly pure research, more a matter of getting in contact with a fairly substantial number of actual Pagans and Heathens, Kier Salmon, Diana Paxson, and others, and having them go over rough drafts of my work, correct errors, tell me stuff, and point me in the direction of necessary information.  Also the ability to do ‘projective empathy’ is really necessary for a writer.  You have to be able to see the world through other eyes.

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