The best-selling Emberverse series of books by author S.M. Stirling has been very popular with Pagans because it spells out one of our fantasies. What would life be like if our religions were dominant in the community we live in? Or at least one of the dominant religions? If our rituals, our ethics, our Gods were unabashedly the norm and seen as positive and vibrant and diverse?
The Wild Hunt received an advance reader copy of Stirling’s next book in the series and was also given the opportunity to interview him about the series, the new book, and being called a ” Wiccan missionary.”
Background on the Series
The Golden Princess, the 11th book in the Emberverse series, continues to explore what would happen if things like guns, bombs, and electricity stopped working. Filled with likable and realistic Pagan, Heathen, and Polytheistic (and many non-Pagan) characters it portrays our rituals, ethics, and Gods as positive, vibrant, and diverse. There are also positive portrayals of several GLBT and female characters in leadership and combat roles. A wonderful mix of alternative history, post-apocalyptic fiction, and classical fantasy genres.
The series of books can be broken into three parts. The first three books primarily focus on how humans, in what was the USA, survive the loss of 600 years of technological progress after an event called the Change happens, which causes electricity, guns, explosives, and other methods of power production to stop working. Approximately 90% of the population dies off and small bands of survivors form around charismatic leaders to reinvent their lives. A professor of medieval history and his SCA friends use feudal England as a model for a new society. A pseudo-Celtic clan is formed in Oregon when a community coalesces around a Wiccan coven with a Bard and powerful witch as a High Priestess. A former marine and the passengers of a downed light aircraft create a feared and respected military organization.
In books four through ten, the story passes to the next generation and the books move from alternative history more firmly into classical fantasy. There are visions from Gods, magic appears to be real, a quest for a sword, demonic enemies, and a fight to unite a new kingdom from the ashes of the Changed world.
In The Golden Princess, which starts a whole new section of the series, it has been 46 years and three generations since the Change occurred. The High Kingdom of Montival has enjoyed many years of peace.
Crown Princess Órlaith, [a third generation witch,] now wields the Sword of the Lady—and faces a new enemy. Fortunately, she also has a new ally in Reiko, Empress of Japan, who has been pursued to America by a conquering army from Asia.To combat their mutual foe, Órlaith and Reiko embark on a quest to find the fabled Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the Grass-Cutting Sword, one of the three great treasures of the Japanese Imperial House. But dreams have revealed that the road to Kusanagi lies through the meganecropolis of the City of Angels, the greatest and most perilous of the dead cities…and beyond it, to a castle in the fearful Valley of Death. And their relentless enemy will stop at nothing to prevent them from succeeding.For across the Pacific, the great arc of land that stretches from the dark kingdom of Korea to the realm of Capricornia in Australia is threatened by war. Now all the survivors of the Change must choose sides…. – plot summary from Amazon
A full review of the book, which is slated for release in September, can be read after the interview with S.M. Stirling.
Interview with author S.M. Stirling
Cara Schulz: Let me take you back to around 2002 and 2003 when you were writing Dies the Fire,the first book in the series. You have the post-apocalyptic novel set in 1998 where you follow three main sets of survivors trying to survive and rebuild society after an event called the Change. There’s a power-mad history professor and his wife who are members of the SCA, a former US Marine and the passengers he was flying in a small aircraft. Then you have a Wiccan High Priestess and her coven. In the early 2000’s Wicca wasn’t well known in mainstream America, so where did the idea for the Wiccans, as opposed to stereotypical fantasy witches, come about?
S.M.Stirling: Well, I’d known some witches for years, here in Santa Fe, Paris, George R.R. Martin’s wife, to name one, who kindly lent me a lot of books on the Craft, and at conventions. And well before then, I’d run across Gardner while doing some research on esotericism back in the early to mid 20th century.
When I’m beginning a book, I usually get “glimpses,” flashes of bits of scenes and characters. With Dies the Fire, there were little snippets of Juniper Mackenzie, sitting by a campfire beside her Traveler wagon, and I knew that she was a witch. Like most characters, she was partly bits and pieces taken from actual people and partly stuff made up out of whole cloth, churned around in the subconscious and presented to me.
When I came to write the book I did more research, Clifton et. al., and, yes, even some Silver Ravenwolf, and looked up some actual Wiccans and other Pagans for consultation. And got a few as first readers, as well. Kier Salmon in Oregon was invaluable, and became a close friend, and there have been a number of others.
There’s no substitute for consulting people actually involved in a particular world, because there are all sorts of things that aren’t written down. If you immerse yourself enough, you start to develop a gestalt sense for it, too.
Incidentally I do this whenever possible if I’m writing from the p.o.v. of someone with very different life experiences; someone who’s of a different sexual orientation or gender or language or whatever. You don’t always have to take what they say as Gospel, but it really helps with avoiding obvious (to an insider) mistakes. There’s a saying I’m fond of: “It ain’t what you don’t know that’ll kill you, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.”
For example, my “book knowledge” of the Craft turned out to be seriously outdated in terms of what was actually done in the late 90’s. Among other things, I hadn’t known the extent of the interactions between Wicca and Reconstructionism.
How Wicca and other faiths develop in the post-Change world in the books is another matter, of course; it becomes a majority religion in its area, and a hearth-faith into which people are usually just born; that and the post-apocalyptic environment mean that the path it takes is different from the real world’s.
CS: A range of Wiccan ethics and rituals are such a large part of this series. I love all the little bits in it that sound so authentic, like one character making faces while another talks about learning the Craft from a Silver Ravenwolf book. What has been the response from the Wiccan community towards the portrayal of Wicca and Wiccan characters in your novels?
Stirling: Generally it’s been quite favorable. Not universally so, but then the Wiccan community is never unanimous about anything, which is one of the fun things about it. There’s a gorgeously varied collection of individualists and eccentrics there! As an eccentric individual myself, I appreciate that.
The really startling thing was having a number of people tell me that they became Wiccans because they read the books. Which was flattering, but left me rather bemused. When people first accused me of being a Wiccan missionary, I just thought it was a complete hoot until I realized that to a minor degree I evidently was.
CS: What has been the response from mainstream readers when they find out the witches aren’t the villains but are the heroes?
Stirling: On the whole mainstream readers have found it interesting, and a number have told me it made them more appreciative of Wiccan and other Pagan religions as a real, complex phenomenon. I’ve had some hostility from people who have strong preconceptions, whether Christian or secularist; the latter can be just as bad, but on the whole not many. Most of the readers who are believers from other traditions were a little surprised to find how much they had in common with the Pagan characters.
CS: Many different religions and religious groups, including Heathens, are treated as valid and equally respected throughout the series. Do you think your being an atheist made that harder or easier?
Stirling: Ah, well, the devil’s in the details. It all depends on what type of atheist you are. I’m not the type who’s angry with God, or any other deity, or religion as a phenomenon. Dawkins et. al. sort of make me embarrassed; they come across as grossly rude.
Religious traditions give meaning and structure to the lives of the overwhelming majority of human beings and are a big part of their personal and collective identities, and I have absolutely no problem with that as such.
I’m a “cultural High Church Anglican” myself; I don’t believe the theology, but I find the ceremonies and atmosphere beautiful and comforting, and a connection to my ancestors and participating doesn’t bother me at all. Plus beliefs and faiths give color and texture to life; they’re often simply cool.
A few years ago Jan and I went to Bangalore to stand in at a wedding for the parents of a friend who’d become a Hindu in Los Angeles (She was born ethnic Russian in Central Asia.) and who’d met a guy from India in Denver, and that was both fascinating and deeply enjoyable. Everyone was exquisitely polite and welcoming, too.
Though obviously the details of specific variants of specific traditions in specific times and places can be problems. I don’t like the Westboro Baptists or Boko Haram or the Bajrang Dal. “From the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight can be made,” as the old saying goes. There are even people who’ve managed to warp Buddhism into an excuse for afflicting other people, which shows a certain depraved ingenuity. I’m rather fond of Buddhism myself, hence Chenrezi Monastery in the former Wyoming in the stories. [Note:The Chenrezi Monastery is set as a location in a few of the books]
CS: There are now 11 books in the series. When you released Dies the Fire, did you think the series would be so successful that you’d be publishing your 11th book just ten years later?
Stirling: I certainly -hoped- so, and planned the setting so it would have ample room to work in without getting cramped or bored. But you can never tell what’s going to “take”. I think I did hit an undeserved audience in the Pagan community but that was serendipity. For one thing, before I started Dies the Fire, I had no idea there were so many [Pagans]! That was a delightful surprise. They’re everywhere!
CS: Let’s turn to your newest book The Golden Princess. Although this is the 11th book in the Emberverse series, it was written so new readers can jump right in with this book. How is this new book different from the previous 10?
Stirling: Well, it’s essentially the story of a new generation meeting new challenges; it reintroduces the world through their eyes. One of the interesting things about the Change series, for me as the author, is dealing with “generation gaps.”
The one between the people who grew up in “our” world and the Changelings, those born after 1998 and those who were too young then to remember the old world when they grew up, is immense. There’s been a cataclysm of unprecedented proportions, and the laws of nature have changed.
But there’s another, between those of the first generation, haunted by the Change and its aftermath, and their children and grandchildren, the ones who grew up in the world the Changelings made and are fully comfortable with it.
Another big part of the series is cultural evolution. The Change and the devastation more or less trashed what went before. A lot of the successor cultures look to their pasts for inspiration — but as one character in The Golden Princess says, “History cannot be completely undone, even by the Change, nor can the past be truly brought back even if you wear its clothes.”
So the cultures founded in the aftermath of the Change and inspired by the past, often myths and legends of the past more than the actual thing, have now had two generations to settle in, interact with the Changed natural world and each other, and move along their own tracks.
CS: In the United States we are now seeing 2nd and 3rd generation Pagans who have a very different outlook than their parents and grandparents who converted to some type of Paganism. In the book, Princess Orlaith, the title character, is a third generation witch. Her best friend, Heuradys, is a second generation Hellenic Pagan. How is their outlook different from that of their parents and grandparents?
Stirling: Well, basically it’s the gap between converts and people who grow up in an environment and simply accept it as “the way things are.” In some senses it’s similar to the phenomenon you mention.
In others it’s very different, because the world is — the new generations are not growing up in our hyper-urban, post-industrial world with its saturation wave of data. That also makes for a psychological gap; the pre-Change people are not living in a modern world, but they have, often in ways they’re not conscious of, modern minds.
CS: In The Golden Princess, we get to know characters from a Japan which has gone back to a very traditional way of life. This is a different culture than Western culture. How are you learning about historical Japanese culture and what has surprised you or been most difficult to wrap your brain around?
Stirling: Well, I’ve always been a bit of a Japanophile, so I had a basis for the research; and I’ve followed my usual pattern of consulting people there or who’ve lived there as well as reading everything I could get my hands on. It’s helpful that Japanese culture has been so massively influential here for quite some time. Nothing that’s happened in Western art since the 1870’s can be fully understood without realizing what an impact Japan made aesthetically in the Victorian period, for instance.
One thing you do have to keep in mind about Japan is that they’ve never been Christian, and weren’t introduced to the Classical world’s philosophies and influences until relatively recently.
This makes for subtle differences in perception, including things like ethics, and it has interacted in fascinating ways with the very strong influence of the West in the past hundred and fifty years. It’s not the first time for Japan, of course. They absorbed a great deal from China in the remote past and made it into something entirely their own.
Also keep in mind that what the characters in the books have put together is not a recreation of the world before Meiji; that would be impossible, just as it would be impossible to really recreate pre-Christian Ireland or pagan Norway or the medieval period.
Each period has a concept, an idea of the past, which has as much to do with the present as the actual historical past.” [That] quote is from a Japanese character; he also notes that his father, an adult before the Change, said that he sometimes felt as if he’d woken up in a Kurosawa epic and couldn’t escape. Nobody in his son’s generation knows what that means, of course!
CS: There is continual character growth and development in your novels. Surprising characters who are seen minimally in one novel become important in later novels as the series progresses. What character or characters, besides Princess Orlaith and Empress Reiko, should we keep our eye on while reading The Golden Princess?
Stirling: Well, there’s Heuradys d’Ath, among others!
CS: The Golden Princess begins to explore imperial Japanese culture and hints we’re going to learn more about post-Change Korea. Can you give any hints about other cultures or lands we may be visiting as the series continues and builds?
Stirling: Oh, a fair number. There’s Bali and Southeast Asia, and the post-Change kingdom of Hawaii which is very eclectic, and Australia, where the Kingdom of Capricornia will feature in future volumes. There’s going to be at least one shared world anthology entitled THE CHANGE, with stories from a lot of authors, including Diana Paxson who has been very helpful with stuff on Heathenry.
Review of The Golden Princess
[Note: This review contains spoilers from previous books in the series]
As I have read every book in the series, the challenge was to review this book as if I were a new reader jumping into the Changed world for the first time. That’s a tall order but since the author wrote the book to stand on its own that’s how I’d review it. The mythos so deep and the world building is so layered I wasn’t sure if it could be done.
The verdict? It can, but readers new to the series will quickly want to pick up the first book to satisfy all the teasing references and learn the story behind the legends. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The book mostly takes place in the west coast region of Montival (formerly California and Oregon) but we’re also introduced to the very informal kingdom of Capricornia (formerly, Northern Australia) and its equally informal 82 year old king.
The King stifled a sigh, hid it away behind a wave and thumbs-up gesture for an especially rowdy concentration of well-wishers, the front row of the Backwater Rugby Club if their banner didn’t lie. They cheered him past.
“Hats off for JB!”
“Pants down for JB!”
Raucous laughter and another frown from [Prince] Thomas.
“Go you good king!”
The introduction of King John, his son Prince Thomas, and the people and concerns of Capricornia is handled during a carriage ride through the main port city. It’s a nice touch and a deft way to concisely help readers understand this land and its culture without taking too much time or getting monotonous. The King is clearly beloved by his subjects, in a very rough and familiar way which the King encourages by bantering back and forth with people along the way. Although the kingdom is relatively prosperous and safe, there’s some serious Star Wars-style foreshadowing by King John at the end of the chapter when he says, “Because I’ve got a bad fucking feeling about this. It’s going to be bad. For us and everyone else.”
One of the more interesting aspects of The Golden Princess are these glimpses into other lands. They’re familiar enough that you can see and hear them in your mind, yet, because of the Change, they’ve developed in weird and wonderful ways.
Speaking of weird and wonderful, several 18-ish year old scouts of the Dunedain Rangers of Montival play a prominent role in the book. The Dunedain Rangers were originally the creation of two teen girls who mixed Wicca with Tolkin. The Rangers quickly developed into a crack team of sneak and sabotage specialists who speak Elvish. The scouts may sound a bit silly, but after three generations, this is simply the life they live and they are good at what they do. Stirling could have made them into a cheap and easy joke, but instead he treats them with the same care and development he’s used on more conventional characters. They are earnest and thoughtful, but not stiff or stuffy. Their teasing can get a bit …earthy. The three scouts will be joining their princess in her quest, you couldn’t keep them away.
There’s a quest? This is shaping up to be a classic fantasy novel so of course there’s a quest.
Back in Montival, the funeral rites for the High King are performed and 21 year old Crown Princess Orlaith takes his magic sword from the ashes of his pyre. After consulting with her new ally, the (also very young and newly crowned) Japanese Empress Reiko, Orlaith swears to avenge his death. But first they have to gather more companions, get a ship, and sneak away from their understandably protective advisers and family.
And find another magic sword hidden in a castle. I have to admit, when I found out there was another quest for another magic sword, I wasn’t all that excited. I mean, how many magic swords can a world have?
The answer is two. So far. And after a few chapters, I was so on board with finding the second damn sword that I read the entire book in one night.
The book is a bit lighter on action, but big on plot and character development, which is a welcome change from many fantasy novels. Or perhaps it just seemed lighter on action since I wasn’t hit over the head with constant battle. I’m slowly warming up to the three main characters (Orlaith, Heurady’s – Orlaith’s Knight and best friend, and Reiko) but the chapters are stolen by several secondary characters – one of whom is Moishe Feldman.
Feldman is a Jewish merchant and shipmaster whom John, Orlaith’s brother, contacts to see if they secretly can buy a ship to begin the quest.
[Feldman]“Let me sum this up. You want me… my family… to not only transport this expedition of yours, but to lend you the money for it, because this Japanese lady had some dreams. Oh, pardon me, you and your sister had dreams too. The only security you offer being your promise to pay us back later. Which would of course be worthless if you get killed, in which case the High Queen Mathilda, the Lord bless and sustain her, will want my head on a pike, if there’s anything left after bankruptcy court gets through with me.”
[John, Orlaith’s brother] “Yes, Mr. Feldman, that’s pretty much it. She wouldn’t break the law to get it, and we’re not asking you to do anything technically illegal, but she’d want it.”
They both knew his mother never forgot a friend… or an enemy, come to that. Feldman’s links had mostly been to his father’s side of the family, not the Armingers. The merchant nodded and went on:
“And there’s a distinct possibility that diabolists, of the sort who killed this Japanese woman’s father and burned her ship and then killed the High King, may be involved. And may attack my ship. In other words, you’re asking me to fight devil-worshipping sorcerous cannibal pirates.”
“Possibly Haida too, who are all of the above minus the cannibalism – and what happens to your body after you’re dead, is that really such a big deal? And assorted other low-lifes, possibly, including Eater bands in Los Angeles.”
“That’s pretty much the situation, Mr. Feldman. Actually according to our sources there may be Eater bands from the Bay area involved, too.”
Feldman’s face suddenly split with a grin, very white against his black beard. “I have to consult with my brothers and my mother, but I’m currently head of the family business and essentially I’m inclined to agree. Subject to negotiating the details, of course; though I insist on captaining the ship myself. Hmmm, the Tarshish Queen would do nicely.”
That’s a character and a plot I want to read more about. If you’re looking for a book with plenty of female leads who can also kick some butt set in a world where Pagansism is one of the dominant religions, give The Golden Princess a try. And, speaking of, Stirling puts up sample chapters of all his books on his website.