A panel discussion question was asked at ConDiego: Who are the current and up-and-coming Grand Masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy literature? Well, Stirling is one of our living Grand Masters, and the chronicles of the Change, of which this is the 14th, is why. The premise, that Industrial and Post-Industrial technologies simply ceased to function, causing more than 90% of humanity to die off and survivors to rediscover old skills and create new societies, prompted Harry Turtledove to comment, “Nobody wrecks a world better than S.M. Stirling, and nobody does a better job of showing that people remain people, with all their high points and low, in the wreckage.”
In The Desert and the Blade, Crown Princess Orlath Mackenzie, who knows firsthand how powerful a magical sword can be, travels with Empress Reiko, the young heir to the Japanese empire, on a quest to find the lost, sacred blade of Reiko’s ancestors, the Grass-Cutting Sword, stolen from a temple decades past and lost somewhere in what used to be the State of California. Along the way, they encounter communities of survivors, some who have managed to recreate stable social units, others who wage war on neighbors or prey quite literally on travelers.
Reiko’s military prowess and Orlath’s diplomacy both get tested when they and their retinues help fend off one warlord’s bid for regional supremacy. Seeds of a future storyline are sown in the battle, for not all magics are protective or benign, and Orlath has a terrible encounter with one of the sorcerers of a foreign power. After all, if it is possible to have Dunedain Rangers, it stands to reason that there may also be a Dark Lord.
Reiko finally tracks down the missing blade and if you thought the battle for Topanga was climactic, wait till you get to Chapter 30. What she goes through in the way of magical barriers penetrated, savage encounters with maddened, desperate, trapped people, and what she endures to make possible a reforging of what was broken, is epic storytelling of extraordinary imaginative originality.
One component that makes this series so remarkable is the diversity of characters, the spot-on accuracy with which Stirling describes diverse characters. Very, very few writers can get different voices right. It never once seems as though he is forcing inclusiveness onto the story, or down readers’ throats; rather, his writing is a recognition of the real diversity of creatures that exists and would persist in the wake of calamity. He hears the music in words, in manners of speech, as well as in the poetry his characters quote upon occasion. Stirling is also one of the few writers who perfectly balances narrative descriptions of place, complex character building and development, and twisty, action-oriented plotting. His descriptions are sometimes lyrically beautiful, the details always relevant and revealing. And by all that is wonderful, he has a sense of humor! Characters tell jokes, play games, make references to Pre-Change life that are often hilarious; they are not relentlessly, dreadfully serious. There is also a profound and pervasive sense of wonder, of mystery and hair-raising weird that is even more elusive in this or any genre.
These books are so well-written, with backstories summarized and cues provided, that you can start pretty much anywhere, even this late in the series, and be confidently welcomed into the story. One of my favorite moments, for example, is a discussion between several of the characters, part speculation, part explanation, of how Tolkien’s books became the basis for a way of life for some survivors. Not only are there Dunedain Rangers one of whom is named Faramir there are elf-friends who live in flets built in trees, who are not in the least discomfited by the lack of any actual elves to befriend. It takes real moxy, or chutzpah, to put Tolkien on equal footing with “real” history, and argue persuasively beloved stories are every bit as relevant as factual events in shaping the lives of his many protagonists. After all, is that not so in our own lives? You may not wish to live in the word post-Change, but surely you will delight in visiting and resisting this world so imaginatively, magnificently depicted. Chris Wozney