Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

prince_of_outcasts_cover

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.

Advertisements

The Golden Princess, by S.M. Stirling

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.

Continue reading

Crusade, by Taylor Anderson

Crusade

I just finished reading Crusade last night, the second book in Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series.  It still hits that oddly specific sweet spot I mentioned before, with alt-history technological bootstrapping and idealized social dynamics being the name of the game.  I believe I referred to Into the Storm as a strange mix of Stirling and Flint, but I’ve come to a better understanding of these books’ oddly specific conflux of flavors.  To envision Anderson’s style, strip away most of Stirling‘s semi-religious influences and replace what remains with faith in Honor and Doing What’s Right, convert Flint‘s cheerfully proletariat bonhomie into something just a bit more hierarchical, and toss in Weber or Ringo‘s blood-spattered military adventurism.  Now you’ve got a good approximation of Anderson.  (Just to be clear, I don’t expect any Oh John Ringo No! moments).

This second book in the series sticks with the same characters we met in the first one, and expands the cast slightly to give us a better perspective of the foes our protagonists face.  The setting remains the same, and the various characters on the ship are still wonderful to follow around.  I still sometimes felt like I was reading about a Chopper’s gang from Apocalypse World, and the sometimes aggressive, sometimes malicious pranking and posturing of the crew is reminiscent of my own experiences of living with a large group of other young men.  People are convincingly selfish and obsessive about their various areas of responsibility, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the gradual induction of non-human characters into the ship’s crew and watching how they adapt to their duties and adopt the mannerisms of the other characters around them.

Ok, speaking of adapting, I need to mention something that I brought up last time as a concern; Anderson very carefully carries through on representing stereotypical 1940s gender roles, and I found that a bit off-putting (not the accuracy, but the roles and expectations themselves).  Fortunately, since the American humans aren’t the only culture in the book, there are groups of characters who aren’t bound by those gender-strictures.  But Crusade doesn’t look much deeper into the disconnect between the human conceptions of propriety and the conceptions of their new Lemurian allies.  I said that I’d be dissatisfied if that didn’t change… and it didn’t really change, and I am dissatisfied.  At the same time, the topic has certainly been discussed (briefly, or as a source of disconcertion) by the characters even if not much has come of it thus far, and it looks like there may be more change coming down the line.  My guess would be that such change will inevitably be lower priority for the story than the themes of military and honor, but I’ll keep reading and keep hoping that the change will come some point soon.  At a guess, the alteration of gender expectations will come about as a fait accompli as more of the humans die and are replaced by Lemurians.  Go figure.

Those quibbles aside, I’m still enjoying the series.  If you liked the sound of the style amalgamation I described above, you’ll probably enjoy it too.

Into the Storm, by Taylor Anderson

islg

 

This book falls into a strangely particular sweet spot for me; there’s something about the alt-history technological bootstrapping genre that I find appealing, and the obviously idealized social dynamics presented in this book are endearing if not convincing.  Furthermore, S.M. Stirling’s cover blurb pulled me over the edge into reading it.  I was not quite as automatically engrossed as he apparently was, but Into The Storm has made excellent reading material while I’ve been laid up following an unfortunate paintball incident.

The basic concept is very simple, transposing an American WWI destroyer caught in action against the Japanese at the opening of WWII from our world into an alternate world in which (more or less) the dinosaurs never really died away.  The story is all about the destroyer’s crew doing their best to survive in a strange new world, and doing what they can to find friends who might be able to help them keep their ship operating instead of simply falling apart.  It feels a little like S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time crossed with Eric Flint’s 1632, but instead of dealing with a town or island it focuses entirely on a very small warship.  The crew is wonderfully convincing, right down to their malicious pranking and oddly neurotic idiosyncrasies, and I enjoy following all of their various perspectives as the story progresses.  The crew actually reminds me a little of the residents of an Apocalypse World hardhold or members of a Chopper’s gang.

Now, when I say “endearing if not convincing” up above, I don’t mean to disparage the author’s conception of hierarchical systems founded on an egalitarian society.  As it’s presented, it seems to work pretty well.  But the author’s clear preference for the system by which ‘the good guys’ operate is so transparent that I feel unable to accept it at face value.  I don’t have experience with living and working on a US Navy vessel, I have no idea whether or not Anderson’s description is anything like the truth, and I suspect that what Anderson describes is closer to the ideal towards which his hierarchical system strives rather than the reality.  I’m certainly aware of many failure modes that would prevent a hierarchical system from working nearly so well as it’s presented in the book.  I think of it as a variation on the likable / wish-fulfillment protagonist problem; it’s really not actually much of a problem, so long as we remain aware of the fact that we’re idealizing the subjects of our attention, be they characters or systems of governance.

Also, I found the gender relations of the human characters (and characterizations of the male vs. female human characters) to be pretty frustrating.  I had a hard time taking the characterizations of the male and female leads seriously, because they seemed so stereotypically 1940s to me.  At a guess, Anderson was trying to ensure that these things were appropriate for a group of people in the US Navy in 1942 (unsurprising given his previous work as a technical and dialogue consultant for movies and documentaries), and I’m ok with that for the most part even though it turned me off the book to some extent (some things, methinks, are better left in the 1940s).  But he doesn’t really explore any of the disconnect between the humans’ attitudes and those of their newfound allies in this first book.  If/when he does get around to exploring that, and looking at the ramifications of further association between their two cultures, I think that has the potential to be super interesting.  If he just glosses over that topic over the next several books, I suspect I’d be a bit disappointed.

So!  If you’ve read and enjoyed Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, or Flint’s 1632, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book as well.  If you haven’t read them but are intrigued by the idea of a group of wanderers on the seas of time and space, doing their best to reestablish themselves safely in a dangerous and not-so-subtly different world, you’ll also probably enjoy this book.  If you don’t think you can tolerate some nearly-stereotypically-1940s gender roles, or some very nearly Apocalypse World-like shenanigans, maybe wait and see what I have to see about the next book before deciding whether this one is worth it.

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.

Continue reading