Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

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I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

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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.

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