“There’s something to be said for a localized religion with deep and specific roots and its own stories about every rock and tree; it sacralizes ordinary things, and makes the numinous part of each particular part of the world.” – SM Stirling
The entire Emberverse series is addictive to Pagans because it spells out one of our fantasies – what would it be like to live in a community where our religion was the dominant religion? If our rituals, our ethics, our Gods were unabashedly the norm and seen as positive, vibrant, and diverse. The Wild Hunt looks at the latest book in the Emberverse series, The Desert and the Blade, and interviews New York Times Best Selling author SM Stirling.
Book: The Desert and the Blade
Author: SM Stirling
Publish Date: September 1, 2015
A mysterious event happens across the globe that causes electricity, gunpowder, cars,and all the things that make modern life possible stop working. As a results, 90% of the population die off within one year due to starvation and disease. While the series could have come across as grim, Stirling focuses on how humans band together to not only survive, but thrive in this new world they find themselves in. The books contain classic fantasy elements, but the setting and characters are not. They are your friends and neighbors and is set in towns you live and work in.
Those that survive The Change (as the event becomes known) band together in small, isolated groups and form new, surprising cultures. After living through the horrors of those early days, people try to forget the past and forge a new life by turning to myths. A professor of medieval history, his SCA friends, and local gang members use feudal England as a model for a new society and build castles in the Portland area. A soldier turned devout monk is elevated to Abbot and turns the abbey into a fortress to guard the flock from roving bands of cannibals. Teenagers infatuated with Tolkien grow into serious scouts and caravan guards as the Dunedain Rangers.
Due to its ability to feed its population, Iowa becomes the most powerful area left in the old United States. Bib overalls and a feed cap become the dress of the upper class and Farmer is a title of respect. 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. The Lakota once again follow the ways and Gods of their ancestors and the buffalo number in the millions.
Religion, especially modern Pagan religions, are central to the series. Pagans take center stage as the heroes. Wiccans, who are the majority in the USA, are also the majority of Pagans in the Emberverse. There are also Heathens, Hellenics, and polytheists of other varieties throughout the series.
The Emberverse books can be broken into 3 (or 4) sub-series. Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War and A Meeting at Corvallis follow the events immediately after the Change and take place primarily in the pacific Northwest. These books treat magic as something that might or might not be real and show the beginnings of how wildly new cultures are formed. The next grouping of 7 books takes place 25 years after the Change and follows the children of many of the main characters of the first books. This is also where the books turn from being Alternative History/Post-Apocalypse to Fantasy with subtle, but real magic. The culture changes are now becoming more entrenched.
The Golden Princess and The Desert and the Blade take place 46 years after the Change. They follow Princess Órlaith, heir to a kingdom that stretches across most of the former western USA, her Knight Heuradys, and Reiko, Empress of Japan. The books take place mostly in the Pacific Northwest and California, but the stories also bring in Korea and the kingdom of Capricornia in Australia. There are bad guys, a brewing war, witchcraft, battling Gods, and a quest.
Interview with S.M. Stirling:
Cara Schulz: What started out as a book of alternative (future) history with a few instances of perhaps-magic-but-probably-better-explained-by-coincidence evolved into an outright fantasy series with Gods and magic. Did you know from the beginning that was how the series would evolve?
SM Stirling: Yes, I had that pretty much in mind. The Change is more broad-ranging than it at first appears! Part of the fun was taking modern (more or less) people and their immediate descendants and putting them in that setting. Even Juniper Mackenzie, who was a Wiccan high priestess before the Change and always believed in magic, is a bit startled. Though in a good way! I do try to keep the magic from turning into D&D and fireballs from the fingertips, though. That’s fine for some books, but these have a different structure.
CS: In your books you take something very normal and mundane and show how far it can be taken if a small band of isolated survivors make it their core identity. The crashed plane of Boy Scouts, who develop into a cross between legendary Indian Trackers and Appalachia Firefox students, is one of the best examples. Another is a core of Army vets who, while intending to rebuild the USA, reinvent the Roman Legions. How do you come up with these different communities?
SMS: That’s a toughie. The glib answer writers usually give is that they get their ideas from a mail-order firm in upstate New York, but seriously it’s a bit of a mystery. Some of it just does well up from the subconscious. I had glimpses of Juniper sitting next to a campfire next to her Traveller’s wagon, and knew she was a witch, for example.
In the case of this series overall, I wanted -amplitude. That is, I wanted a lot of different cultures and customs, and the post-Change world is full of ’em. As a character says, when the going gets weird, the weird get going — and this is a set of circumstances in which it’s a positive survival advantage to be a bit weird. I find that amusing, not least because I’m a bit weird myself. The board is swept clear of the ordinary and the predominant.
Also, it’s a meditation on the nature of historical change and on the interaction between the present and our memories and ideas about the past. The past is gone and can never be wholly brought back — as one character says, “even if you wear its clothes” — yet we can never entirely reinvent ourselves; the past is also always present. How people build on what their know of (or dream of) their pasts is part of the story.
CS: Other communities form around a religion and many of those religions are Pagan religions such as Wicca, Hellenismos, Heathenry, and now Shinto. Why did you decide to make minority religions such a prominent and positive part of your series?
SMS: Well, see above. Partly it’s just that I find them fascinating; partly it’s the people I’ve met along the way building the series and concepts in the course of the research, which I do compulsively; partly it’s the internal logic of the initial premises. Throughout most of human history religion has been the core of most communities, woven into the very fabric of their lives. I don’t see why it should be different after the Change; quite the contrary, since it’s once again a world of villages and face-to-face communities. And while I’m not prejudiced against the Abrahamic religions, it is sort of tedious the way they’ve reformatted so much of the world. There’s something to be said for a localized religion with deep and specific roots and its own stories about every rock and tree; it sacralizes ordinary things, and makes the numinous part of each particular part of the world. Also it makes travel more interesting!
The “world religions” are still part of the world in the Change series; they’ve just been trimmed back somewhat and made less hegemonic, having to learn to be good neighbors.
CS: From the very first books, you acknowledged Wiccan Kier Salmon with assisting you in creating realistic Wiccan characters and Heathen Diana Paxson for inspiring the series with her Westria books and for helping create the Heathen community and characters by referencing her Essential Asatru and Our Troth books. In your latest book, The Desert and the Blade, there is a long list of Pagans thanked for their help or for allowing you to use their lyrics in your book. What has it been like to develop this network of Pagans as resources and how has that helped you as an author?
SMS: Well, first it’s been a lot of fun! I’ve met a great many delightful, intelligent and interesting people, and some of them have become close friends. As an author, it’s been helpful both directly (getting information, preventing embarrassing errors) and by exposing me to different outlooks and worldviews. This is particularly important for a science fiction and fantasy author. If you’re writing mimetic fiction, it can suffice to know one milieu and part of the world intensely, and the people in it. When you’re building entire worlds, they should have something of the width and breadth and intricate close-grained variability of the actual world, which is huge and diverse beyond our comprehension. Broadening your exposure to different ways of thinking helps prevent your imagined worlds from being too flat and monochromatic.
CS: The Desert and the Blade has three young women as the main characters. One is a Wiccan, another is a Hellenic polytheist, and the third follows Shinto. All three are politically and physically powerful. Normally fantasy and magic novels have the men wielding swords and going on adventures and the women are relegated to rape bait or magic users who needed to be protected. Why push against the norm by having all three main characters be powerful, intelligent, physically strong women?
SMS: There’s an old Mexican joke about a man from Sonora and a man from Yucatan sitting in a pulqueria somewhere talking about their home regions. The man from Sonora pounds his fist on the table and says “In Sonora, we’re real men! All of us! Every one!” The guy from Yucatan looks at him for a moment and says: “That’s odd. In Yucatan only half of us are men.The other half are women, and we like it that way.”
I’ve always used a lot of female characters, from the start of my writing career, for pretty much that reason! Also because my mind just seems to work that way. Perhaps it was being in single-sex schools for my teenage years; I OD’d on the alternative. It wouldn’t be thought at all odd to have a monarch, a knight and the heir to a throne as lead characters — why not a monarch, a knight and the heir to a throne who happen to be women?
CS: The Desert and the Blade also starts taking a closer look at non-Western culture, namely that of ancient Japan if it were to be revived again. How difficult is it to to leave a Western mindset to show how Empress Reiko would view different situations? Do you think you were successful?”
SMS: I think I was reasonably successful. It helps that Reiko’s culture isn’t that of ancient Japan, strictly speaking: it’s a post-apocalyptic Japan which has used a lot of its memories and concepts of the past to shape a -new- culture. One which, of course, as resident deity of that fictional universe, I designed! Nearly all the post-Change cultures involve a rejection of modernity, which is discredited by the appalling trauma of the Change itself. The survivors more or less have to cut themselves free to come to terms with things and to get on with their lives. But none of them is a direct recreation of the past; that’s not possible, in my opinion. Modernity still -shapes- the new cultures which emerge; they may use swords and sailing ships (and horse-drawn railways and heliographs) but they’re still the product of people who went through the modern world, and their descendants. As the saying goes, you cannot -not- know history; there’s no such thing as a blank slate, even if the world ends, though the concept of the tabula rasa, the new start, is itself a powerful historical force. Or as Marx put it, human beings -make- history… but they don’t make it just as they please. Their choices are inevitably limited, channeled and shaped by their circumstances, which are a product of the previous history they’re stuck with. I’ve tried to reflect this in the Change series.
CS: There are now 12 books in the Emberverse, but they can be divided into three sub-series series. The first series is about the immediate aftermath of the change. The second series focuses on the children of those survivors. And this series takes place about 46 years after the change and follows the third generation of survivors. As the author, where can people new to these books start?”
SMS: Well, that’s a more and more difficult question as a series goes along. Technically the whole shebang starts with ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME, where the Change starts on Nantucket and it’s thrown back to 1250 BCE. It’s the same overall imagined universe and there’s some lapover in characters — the brother of one of Juniper’s original friends is on Nantucket and is a secondary character in that trilogy. You can start with DIES THE FIRE easily enough, though: it isn’t necessary to know what happened to Nantucket, though it helps. I think you could come in at THE SUNRISE LANDS for the second series in the Change universe; and with THE GOLDEN PRINCESS for this new trilogy. It would be a -little- more difficult, but I tried to make them approachable that way. Although that has its own hazards; if you’re not careful, you can take up half a book with recapitulation!
CS: Thank you for chatting with us about your books. In addition to the books written by SM Stirling, there is also a newly released anthology based in the Emberverse called The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth and one of the stories included is from Kier Salmon.
Review of The Desert and the Blade
In a nutshell you have a princess, a knight, and an exotic foreigner on a quest for a magical sword. But that’s where the tropes end. All three main characters are women, all three practice different types of polytheist religions, and all three can kick serious butt with a blade. These are not helpless damsels.
The landscape they travel through, a post-apocalyptic portion of Western USA, is familiar. Readers will recognize the landmarks, even though they are mostly abandoned and falling into ruin. Yet the land itself is recovering from the abuses of modern life and fossil fuels. The tone of the book matches that – filled with hope, renewal, and youth.
The quest itself is just starting after forces from Korea kill the fathers (and reigning monarchs) of two of the main characters. Princess Orlaith and Knight Heuradys, who are from a kingdom that was formerly the western half of the US, are assisting Japan’s young Empress Reiko on her quest to find the fabled sword that can be used to avenge the death of their fathers. This isn’t a fight to take over Korea or based on xenophobia. Korea’s leader has been taken over by a type of demon, and the evil is harming the Koreans and threatening to spread.
The book goes into fairly complex nuanced explorations of the ethics of war and a leader’s responsibility for those who follow her and those who oppose her. It also explores respect for different cultures and religions while standing firm against oppression and evil.
When faced by an enemy, who has killed some of her friends, Órlaith wins the fight. But she also frees the man’s soul to return to his ancestors in the afterlife:
Órlaith looked into the eyes, into a whirling circle of dissolution that was eternally motionless, a nothing that thought it was everything, a futility that believed it was perfection. Where there were no lies because there was no truth, only an endless chewing of stale memory into smaller and smaller bits beneath the gaze of the Solipsist.
“No,” she said. “I will not leave even a bitter enemy so. Find freedom, man of the People. Find truth.”
She stepped forward and thrust. For an instant bewildered pain and hatred ran through her in a shuddering wave. Then it was as if a door opened – not for her, though she was enough of it to see and stand on the threshold for a moment.
The skaga took his hand from the dorsal fin of the great creature that bore him on a journey, one she sensed had been far longer for him than her. He made a gesture of thanks as it turned and dove into water like froth-tipped icy jade; his eyes caught hers for seconds, and he nodded, then turned to those who waited for him.
The rituals used by the various polytheist characters to honor their Gods and ancestors are realistic, respectful, and meaningful. The same goes for all the other religions encountered, including Christianity, a few forms of Judaism, and other various cultures. Respect is one of the key themes of the book. Respect for self, for others, for the beauty of diversity, and for the world.
That respect also extends to the use of magic, which isn’t treated lightly. The witches are respected and respectful of the powers and Gods on which they call. Thankfully, the author also extends that same respect to his readers by giving a solid, non-sensational view of spellcasting.
One of the kilted northerners was on his… no, her knees, it was the woman named Gwri, the dark one with her hair in small tight braids tipped with silver balls – sensibly muffled with a kerchief under her helmet for this work. Her face had a sinuous design in dark green and brown and burnt ochre drawn on it now; Mackenzies didn’t tattoo like their relatives, but they did paint their faces for war when they had time.
She was kneeling up behind a fragment of wall, with her arms out to either side and palms up, swaying slowly to left and right, with an arrangement of rocks and scratches in the dirt before her and objects at the points of a pentagram inside a circle – a feather, a bone, things he couldn’t see clearly. And as she swayed she chanted or half-sang, very softly, words that trickled into your ears like warm honey, her eyes heavy-lidded. Like your mother singing to you in your cradle… and Connor’s mother had died in childbirth, he’d been raised by his father and a bunch of neighbors, he didn’t remember her at all.
Except that somehow now he did, with an overwhelming sense of homecoming, like staring into the hearth as it flickered low while it rained outside.
The entire bestselling series should be read by every Pagan. Not only is it a joy to read such positive portrayals of Pagans in this gripping, smoothly paced, and well-written series, but also Pagans get the unusual bonus of catching a glimpse of what Pagan communities could look like. However, I wouldn’t wish the Change on anyone. The Desert and the Blade hovers between Young Adult and Adult and can be enjoyed by either audience. If you’re looking for books with Pagan, GLBT, and feminist characters in them with lots of action, heart, and intelligence you’ll enjoy these books.