The Given Sacrifice, by S.M. Stirling

I love S.M. Stirling‘s Change series.  I enjoyed the first trilogy, seeing people pulling together despite incredible adversity after the collapse of civilization as we know it, and I enjoyed the later transition to a more classical epic and mystical fantasy adventure with post-apocalyptic trappings.  But I did not like how slowly the story moved along in the later books.  I’ll do my best not to spoil anything, but once you get close to the end of the second Change series you’ll understand what I mean; Stirling’s story doesn’t move quite as slowly or impenetrably as Jordan‘s Wheel of Time once did, but the comparison of pace is almost appropriate.  Despite the trudging sense of gradual story progress, I still really liked the story that was being told.  And I’ll freely admit that Stirling at least made good use of the pace to lay the foundation for elaborate and interesting future story developments and character interactions.

All of this is meant by way of comparison: after the previous few books in the series, The Given Sacrifice moves like lightning.  The characters forge ahead at full speed, even as nearly all of their previous adventures are called back to our attention in a rapid-fire barrage that just helps to anchor our sense of the heroes’ earlier accomplishments.  And the second half of the book seems to move faster than that, if that’s even possible.  I almost felt as though I’d gotten plot-whiplash.  It was actually rather refreshing to find things moving so quickly, though what I’d like most is if Stirling could perhaps find some sort of middle ground in his next few books.  In the end, despite the sudden change of pace, I have to say that this was a fitting and good finish to its section of the series.  More on why after the break.

Did you ever notice how the previous books in the second Change series didn’t really feel like they finished anything?  Doubtless that was somewhat intentional on Stirling’s part, since having your audience feel like they have to pick up the next book is pretty much always good for sales.  But part of it came out of how much he had to set up ahead of time to make sure that the later sections of his books would fit and make sense.  Of course, he could have written far less, had far less setup, and told a much shorter and less complex story, but that doesn’t sound very much like Stirling.

Even with this book, Stirling is clearly setting up for the next section of the story.  It’s already spoiled on the inner dust jacket, so I don’t feel particularly bad mentioning it here, but my guess is that you’d recognize what was happening for yourself by the time that you got to Part 2 of the book.  Suffice to say that even as he wraps up the long story arc of Rudi and his quest-companions, Stirling sets up for the story of the next generation of heroes.

But I’m ok with that, because as I mentioned above, Stirling does a wonderful job of bringing the story of Rudi’s generation to, if not a close, then at least an end point that feels right.  Or feels dramatically appropriate, which is basically the same thing in this situation.  Rather than leaving us mid-adventure, we have the chance to see the survivors of our previous generation of heroes move on to other things, whatever those might be.  I won’t place bets on them not showing up in the next books, perhaps even in active roles (they are heroes, after all), but they’ve clearly established themselves as something more than questers constantly on the run, or soldiers constantly at war, and seeing the roles that they’ve created for themselves gives a sense of closure that I think no number of “happily ever afters” could ever equal.  They’re not guaranteed protection from the ravages of time or fate, but they’re happy to no longer be the focal point of everything, and it shows.  I suppose it helps that I think “happily ever after” is a sweet but empty phrase that tells us too little to truly be satisfying.

So, thank you, S.M. Stirling, for treating your “retired” heroes more like real people.

I’ll leave it there.  I don’t think I need to tell you more, and I don’t want to ruin anything.  You’ll probably see it all coming anyway, since the story’s direction is pretty clearly telegraphed, without being spoiled.  I totally recommend reading The Given Sacrifice, though I’ll freely admit that you’d have to have enjoyed the particular flavor of mystical post-apocalyptic epic fantasy that runs through the second Change series in order to really enjoy this book.  Give it a try.

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