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Book Review: The Desert and the Blade

By (September 3, 2015) One Comment

The Desert and the Bladethe desert and the blade

by S. M. Stirling

Roc, 2015

S. M. Stirling’s The Desert and the Blade is the twelfth in the “Emberverse” series that began with 2004’s Dies the Fire, a fantastic novel in which a mysterious world-wide flash instantly causes all higher energy-transfer technology to stop working, bringing planes down out of the sky, darkening electric lights, even preventing gunpowder from igniting, reducing the entire world to medieval-level muscle-powered machinery. In Dies the Fire, a small group of survivors in the relatively sparsely-populated Pacific Northwest band together and learn how to live with bows and arrows, trebuchets, and all-sconces to re-shape their little pocket of civilization. As far as the larger world goes, they suddenly know nothing about it at all, except that it seems all the bigger cities – places like Olympia or Seattle or Sacramento – have become “death zones” abounding not only with plagues but with “Eaters,” the many thousands of people reduced to the standard kind of mindless cannibal so popular in post-apocalyptic tales.

But inside the banded-together little Pacific Northwest communities, people begin to recover, and the communities themselves begin to expand, eventually becoming kingdoms along strictly medieval lines (this is one of the besetting weaknesses of the entire series, not just that everybody goes back to vassals and varlets and liege-lords but that they also start using the words “vassal” and “varlet” and “liege-lord”). And adventures ensue – a great many adventures, full of old-fashioned bad guys and good guys, full of action sequences (Stirling is superb at these, every single time), and wandering more and more distantly from any of the questions raised by the original novel – primarily: just what was “the Change”? What caused it? What’s the larger story? Instead, Stirling opts to show us his characters dealing the immediate problems of their world.

It’s a little maddening, but it’s not unusual in today’s fantasy novels (David Weber’s “Safehold” series, for instance, employs the exact same open-ended dynamic), and you get used to it mighty fast. By the time of The Desert and the Blade, a direct follow-up the the previous book in the series and the cornerstone of a new story-arc, nearly fifty years have passed since the Change; our characters have never known a world other than the kind they live in now, and to them, the ruins of the pre-Change world might as well be mythological.

And if they were mythological, they’d be of a piece with other developments with which Stirling has complicated his story over the course of the last half-dozen novels, in which it’s become more obvious to all our characters that there are unseen powers at work, supernatural powers aiding both the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys are armed with the Sword of the Lady, a mystical, invincible blade, and in The Desert and the Blade, the current wielder of the Sword of the Lady, Crown Princess Orlaith Arminger Mackenzie, is joining the visiting Japanese empress on a quest for another such blade, this one rumored to be in Death Valley, deep in enemy territory and ringed all around by Death zones. And as the plot builds, it becomes obvious that some new force is organizing the savage Eaters, leading to some harrowing encounters narrated with Stirling’s customary drama:

The foremost Eaters were packed and crouching under the lip of the wharf now, dipping it towards them with their weight, clambering forward to the innermost boats to lie flat with the first arrivals or even just waiting in the water with only their hands showing gripping the edge and knives between their teeth. She could hear a black hot hatred in their chittering and squeals, and then the front rank boiled up over the long lip of the wharf’s outer bar in a wave of contorted faces, snaggle teeth and fantastic ornaments – one had a huge mass of hair woven with diamonds and emeralds and sapphires from ancient jewelry stores, glittering like colored stars in a dome of hard mud.

The Desert and the Blade is a longer installment than the average in the Emberverse series, and it’s also a cheering return to form after a couple of somewhat meandering books. All the characters in the steadily-growing cast are vividly realized, and the world in which they live is widened to include new communities of survivors, new societies who’ve found their own ways of coping with the loss of undergirding higher technology. And there’s a mid-narrative action set-piece that’s invigorating and a climactic action set-piece that’s downright exhilarating. And in the midst of all that action, Stirling always manages to work in quiet moments in which his characters simply savor the outlandish things their adventures have them doing – like, of all things, hang-gliding:

The slopes along the front of the Santa Monicas made an invisible ladder in the sky as the Valley gave up the heat of the day. The hang-glider still sank – one foot down for every seventeen or so forward – but the column of air that enfolded her was rising faster than that. The moon-washed ruins and scrub beneath her hardly approached at all for the first few miles. Even then, on her way to edged metal and anger, there was some of the joy of flying so, this was as close to a bird’s dance with the spirits of the Air as human beings could come.

The larger Whys and Wherefores remain as far out of reach as ever, but our characters no longer even think to ask about them, and readers will follow suit.