The sequel to The City Who Fought, penned by Stirling alone, is just as mediocre as its predecessor.
In the somewhat free-standing sequel to The Sky People, Stirling takes us to a Mars inspired by the work of Burroughs and the “science” of Percival Lowell. The arid and cold planet is nevertheless inhabited by close relatives of humans. Our hero, one of the U.S. team based on Mars, travels to a lost city on an archeological expedition. But the Martian head of the expedition team is more than she seems. Soon people are out for their heads as they are embroiled in the thick of Martian politics.
Stirling is masterful at characterizing alien cultures. Even minor dialogue lines are steeped in a deep imagined tradition. It is a pleasure to read, especially as Stirling’s unobtrusive understated humor pervades the prose. This tale of a Mars that never was but that dreamers really wished for is a great adventure yarn.
This series is set in an alternate history where Mars and Venus were found teeming with life by spaceprobes in the 1960s. A space race ensued to set up bases on the planets. Interestingly, the superpowers spent so much on space that no major wars were fought on Earth after the Korean War. The action starts on Venus in 1988. Marc Vitrac is one of the researchers living there. It is very much a frontier life among the lush and extremely varied flora and fauna. After some initial setup, Marc and a few others set off on a long journey of adventure. They find answers as to why Venus’ life forms seem so similar to Earth ones, and those answers are unsettling. Along the way, they befriend some natives and, in that inevitable manner of colonization, they are assimilated into their adopted land.
Diehard “outdoor Stirling” fans need not worry. There is plenty of camping, hunting and bowmaking. The characters are. as usual with Stirling, engaging and “real”, as is the backdrop. It is easy to see that Stirling had a lot of fun writing this. It’s as if he woke up one morning and decided to throw a whole bunch of elements (dinosaurs, giant mammals, modern humans, neanderthals, giant bugs and on and on) into a pot just to see what would come out. The result is a fun read but not Stirling’s best. The setting is very rich and complex and more could have been fleshed out, if only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. An appendix discussing background history and societal aspects would have been very welcome.
Stirling concludes the Emberverse trilogy in grand style, but doesn’t really tie up all the loose threads. As with the earlier two books, Stirling loses himself in long descriptions of nature, down to the names of flowers and whatnot. With most authors, such long winded prattling would have led to me discarding the book well before the first hundred pages. But Stirling makes it work. His memorable characters play out their destinies against a rich backdrop of modernity turned medieval after the Change.
The trilogy is a pleasure to read and Stirling’s prose is so delightful I would gladly have read another few hundred pages. If nothing else, several characters are worth longer backstories than they get.
The Protector’s war continues the Emberverse series begun with Dies the Fire. Eight years on from the events of the previous book, the world has somewhat settled after the change. The Protector, the Bearkillers and Clan Mackenzie have all consolidated their positions, and past adventures are turning into legend and myth. A showdown with the Protector must come, but not in this book. That is reserved for the final novel, A Meeting at Corvallis.
I enjoyed this installment very much, but it does suffer from middle of the trilogy syndrome. Just like The Empire Strikes Back, it introduces concepts and characters, setting the stage for the final showdown. If Stirling weren’t so engaging regardless of what he is writing about, the story itself would be a bit boring. But even the sometimes very long descriptions of locales and nature paint rich and gorgeous pictures that are a sheer pleasure to read.
S.M. Stirling stole the island of Nantucket from the present time in the Nantucket series. In Dies the Fire, he postulates that when that event happened, all modern appliances (electronics, engines, etc) stopped working in “our” world. Also, all explosives (yes including gunpowder) burn much more slowly. To top it off, steam engines are vastly less efficient. This leads the characters involved to feel it must have been an outside influence (such as “Alien Space Bats) that created what comes to be called “The Change”. The story does not go into The Change itself more than that however, rather focusing on a group of people having to live in the world post-Change.
As so often with Stirling, I found myself unable to put the book down. He does have a way to make characters pop. The two protagonists, Juniper Mackenzie and Mike Havel, are uncommonly well equipped to handle the change, and draw to them people who also have survivor traits. They seem to have more than their fair share of luck, a theme which crops up here and there. This has led to criticism from some readers, who have said it simply isn’t possible for the protagonists to make out quite so well. I would say that if they hadn’t been so lucky and skillful, they would have died along with 90% of humanity in the year after the Change.
As usual, Stirling has done meticulous research into everything from archery to Wicca. It is a pleasure to watch his characters develop through the story.
John Rolfe, a WWII veteran, inadvertently opens a portal to an alternate timeline in his Oakland, California, basement. He and his old war buddies proceed to conquer this version of the Earth. In the other timeline, Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and the white man never arrived in America. The most advanced civilizations are still technologically in the middle ages. The “Gate” remains open, allowing Rolfe and his new nation to secretly smuggle precious metals to the original timeline (they know where to find it easily by using maps from our timeline) and manufactured goods to the other timeline. The “Gate Secret” is very tightly held.
But all is not well in paradise. A faction fight in the alternate timeline spills over into ours, and two Fish and Game Warden find themselves caught up in the middle, then exiled through the gate. They must now team up with the “good” alternate timeline faction (Rolfe’s granddaughter, for one) to defeat the evil faction.
I enjoyed “Conquistador”. It is adventure pure and simple. The action scenes are masterful. The setting, as well as the social, economic and ecological discussions are both entertaining and intriguing. However, I do think that Stirling could have delivered a better plot. The ending is rather abrupt, and some of the moral issues prominent in the first half of the book (is the whole idea of conquering a new world and setting yourselves up as a benevolent dictatorship really a good thing?) are conveniently dropped by the wayside at the end. And then there are the characters. Likeable as they may be, our heroes are a little too perfectly intelligent, likeable and generally extremely fit and good looking. While I am a sucker for happy endings, I still found it a little bit too happy and perfect and neatly tied up, even though the very last page does open the door for sequels.
This singleton is set in the year 2025, but not in our future. The premise is that a shower of comets hit Earth in the 1860’s, pushing civilization to the brink of extinction both by the impacts themselves and related general cooling. The British Empire relocated its seat to Delhi, and the story takes place in what is India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in our timeline. The Empire is ruled by the Angrezi Raj, or King-Emperor.
This is classic swords and horses adventure. Very gripping, with some great characters. The middle of the book was a little “unfocused”, and Stirling could have added dates to the section headings, since there is a bit of jumping backwards and forwards. The end is one long drawn-out cliffhanger after another. As usual, Stirling proves that he knows his history, weapons and tactics. A real page turner and recommended for for high adventure buffs
This anthology features short stories set in Stirling’s Draka universe. Twelve authors contribute. There are some real gems here, but you probably won’t appreciate them if you haven’t read the Draka series first.
- Island in the Sea of Time
- Against the Tide of Years
- On the Oceans of Eternity
The island of Nantucket and the Coast Guard barque Eagle are mysteriously sent back in time to around 1000 BC. Being too small a society for self-sufficience, the inhabitants (including many seasonal visitors) must go out in the world and survive using technology and cunning. Epic adventure, well researched and well written.
Note: Stirling’s Emberverse series is connected to the Nantucket series since the event that sends Nantucket back in time also triggers the “Change” in Emberverse.
- Falkenberg’s Legion
- Prince of Mercenaries
- Go Tell the Spartans
- Prince of Sparta
The story ranges from the fall of the CoDominium to the rise of Sparta and the First Empire of Man that replaces it. However the macro story takes a backseat to the battles.
This is solid military SciFi. However, the fact that the first two novels are in fact lashups of earlier works set to a common frame gives the whole story a somewhat disjointed feel. The individual episodes are good though, and so are the characters. Interestingly, these novels are set in the same universe as The Mote in God’s Eye, but centuries earlier.
This is book one of the Flight Engineer series. “Mr. Scott” from Star Trek makes an attempt. This shameless plug on Doohan’s celebrity is terrible. “Young Adult” or not, I can’t believe that Stirling was willing to put his name on it. Still more unbelievable is that there are more books in the series. Stay away!
- Marching through Georgia
- Under the Yoke
- The Stone Dogs
The series can really shake you up. It is set in an alternate history in which the Crown Colony of the Cape (what later became modern day South Africa) becomes a powerful nation. This “Domination of the Draka” is utterly elitist and wishes to subjugate all other races to the white master race. It is also fiercely expansionist. At the time of our own timeline’s Second World War, the Domination drives a wedge between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany by invading through the Caucasus. The Domination then proceeds to conquer all of Europe and Asia (except for India), adding these territories to its African holdings. These events are detailed in the first book. The second book is about a spy expedition into Draka territory by the “Alliance for Freedom”, basically what is left of the free world (America and India). It is not quite as good as the rest of the series, and on rereading I have skipped over it completely as it is not essential to the story. The third book is about the final showdown between the two powers. The Alliance is more powerful in technology and the physical sciences, while the Domination, mostly thanks to a scruple free approach to human experiments (they’re just serfs, after all) is very advanced in genetics and bioengineering. The Draka win the war, and the “free” humans mount a last-ditch escape for a precious few to a nearby solar system.
Drakon is a change of pace. In a Draka future, the master race experiments with portals into alternate timelines. A Draka (daughter of the protagonists from The Stone Dogs) is stranded in one of these timelines (our own) and attempts to subjugate it to her will. This novel is much smaller in scope than the other three, but it remains a great read.
The scary thing about the Draka books is that you can easily find yourself rooting for “the bad guys”. These aren’t Hitler’s Nazis. The Draka want an ordered society and a life which does not use up the Earth’s resources without replenishing them. They do not see their use of “serfs” as immoral and they are not given to pettiness. Only ruthlessness. So apart from spinning a great yarn, Stirling is trying to tell us that many would choose the Draka way of life if they had the chance (well, the chance to be Draka). The Draka create an earthly paradise after their victory, and the average standard of living and intelligence of ALL men, including serfs, actually improves after the Draka victory. The series is controversial in this manner and really makes you think about some big issues. It is also a great military science fiction read.
The human galactic federation is in ruins, and the worlds have devolved to various levels of barbarism. On the planet Bellevue, which is at about the early nineteenth century in development, a young officer named Raj Whitehall and his friend venture into the catacombs under the capital. There, they find an ancient battle computer named Center. With Center’s help, Raj must unite the planet and enable humanity to retake the stars. The story is at least somewhat based on that of the Byzantine general Belisarius.
The first seven novels are written by Drake and Stirling. The last one by Drake and Flint. David Drake writes very detailed outlines, while his collaborators write the actual text.
The first five novels are a set and deal with the conquest/unification of Bellevue. They are nowadays published in two volumes, known as Warlord and Conqueror:
- The Forge
- The Hammer
- The Anvil
- The Steel
- The Sword
After finishing the conquest of Bellevue, the personalities of Center and Raj are imbued in computers that are sent to other worlds with launched asteroids. This scenario has infinite permutations as human worlds at various levels of development can be written about. The first of these follow-up novels is:
- The Chosen
It is a great singleton set on a world with early twentieth century technology. Finally there is the two volume story consisting of:
- The Reformer
- The Tyrant
Here, we take a serious step “back in time”, as the planet Hafardine is at about Roman Empire level in it’s technology. The Tyrant is rather different in style from the others due to being penned by Flint. However, his trademark dry humor meshes well with the overall thrust of the series.
This is great military SciFi, with excellent battlescenes and great characters, not to mention a dose of dry humor. Very highly recommended.