It’s been a while since I read any S.M. Stirling, and I picked this one up more on a whim than anything else. I’d gotten tired of the most recent spate of Change novels, probably because of a disconnect between my expectations and what Stirling was delivering. I wanted Stirling to write an active story about a smaller group of characters, with palpable progress in the plot achieved in the course of each book. Stirling did create that progress but it was far slower than I’d hoped for, and he spent more time focused on the milieu of the story rather than advancing the story that I wanted to see resolved. In fact, after the first trilogy the pace of progress slowed precipitously, until it was almost a crawl.
The Golden Princess doesn’t change that pattern. What did change was my expectations of what I’d find in reading the book. And I have to say: reading these books as milieu fiction, as much about the world in which they take place as they are about any of the characters, is far more fun and rewarding than reading them with expectations of tight and fast plot. Definitely worth starting up the series again.
It’s amazing what a change of perspective will do for you. I hadn’t really thought much about using this particular alternate approach to better appreciate the story until after reading a fabulous piece on writing by Orson Scott Card for one of my classes. It turns out that while I deeply disagree with a lot of his opinions and positions, his writing advice remains compelling and incredibly useful. He made a set of excellent points about various focal points for storytelling, using the acronym MICE for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event; and the moment that I made the connection between that set of descriptions and S.M. Stirling’s work I experienced one of those total shifts of perception.
Stirling has done an excellent job of creating a post-apocalyptic world in his lengthy Change series, and he seems to delight in taking extra time to describe it further at every turn. This is good, in that he creates evocative passages to describe the beauty of the land, to tell us about the people who live there and the ways in which they live… but it introduces an obvious weakness, namely that it’s hard to make the plot move along any faster when nearly every scene has long paragraphs talking about wall-hangings and rescued pieces of art, or maybe the fields and trees along someone’s route. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I think it gives you some idea of what it’s like to read these books.
But with that in mind, if you read these books to immerse yourself in the world that Stirling has created, and you enjoy the overarching slow narrative of quests and epic adventure, it doesn’t get much better than this. You just have to be conscious of the fact that you’re going to be reading as much about the world around our focal characters as you will about the characters’ actions, and you have to be willing to enjoy that. Personally, sometimes I don’t want to care about all of that. Sometimes I just want the adventure to get moving already. And when I feel that way, I don’t read S.M. Stirling. But when I’m ready to marinate in an extravagantly detailed setting again, I know it’s time to ease myself back in to Stirling’s books. He does it wonderfully.