Thursday, September 8, 2016

Prince of Outcasts, by SM Stirling - Review

Title: Prince of Outcasts
Series: The Change (Emberverse)
Author: S. M. Sterling
Publisher: ROC (Penguin)
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Reviewing: eARC
Reason for reading: Big fan of this series, loved the last book
The Short Answer
Fans will not be disappointed. We have a reluctant hero, a feisty female co-adventurer and love interest, and the return of the Big Bad.  Cliffhanger ending.
The Blurb
John Arminger Mackenzie wanted to be a troubadour, but fate made him the son of the king of Montival. His sister Princess Órlaith will deservedly inherit the throne of the High Kings, and it will only pass unto him in the event of her death, leaving the young Prince on an unknown path to discover his true role in the family.

The opportunity to prove his mettle comes when John’s ship, the Tarshish Queen, is caught in the fierce storm raised against the enemies of the alliance. When the clouds recede and the skies clear, John and his crew find themselves on the other side of the Pacific, in the island chains of the Ceram Sea, fighting to survive against vicious pirates and monstrous creatures of the deep, meeting new allies and mysterious enemies of this world and another.

Now, Prince John must seize his birthright and lead his people in battle against the darkest forces man and nature can conjure against them.

Series Overview
 Not counting novellas or shorts, Prince of Outcasts is the thirteenth book in the Emberverse or "Novels of the Change" series. That's a lot of books. While there are some natural breaks in the series, it would take a really open-minded reader to jump in at this point and really enjoy the book alone. However, there are plenty of breadcrumbs to serve as reminders for readers with short memories (the first book is now twelve years old, after all) and to help orient newcomers. Most new readers are probably going to want to start at the beginning of the series.

Reviewing the WHOLE SERIES would be a very ambitious undertaking. I adored the first book, Dies The Fire. Five stars to that one. I've re-read it several times, and I'm not a big re-reader. After that, in my opinion the books are a little uneven -- there's almost an ebb-and-flow pattern where one book sets up a conflict and the next book or two enacts it. Some books are more engaging than others. Even so, I look forward every September to visiting this future/past world with its vividly imagined communities, leaders, cultures, and stories. A bare-bones synopsis: Dies The Fire is a truly riveting post-apocalyptic novel that posits something like a global EMP. In an instant, every electrical, electronic, and solid-state device ceases to function. Planes fall out of the sky. Many, many people die. As a fictional twist in the Emberverse, in that moment, all such technology is permanently disabled, and also, combustion, steam pressure, and explosives cease to work as expected-- read: guns don't work, nor do engines, steam turbines, etc. I've had a few techy friends point out that if Boyle's Law is broken, there's a good chance the human (or any animal) body would also not work correctly, but my response is always, "that's where the fiction part of science fiction comes in...".

The thing I love the most about the first three books is the way Stirling rebuilds society. The aftermath is catastrophic. Food pipelines are shattered and only those in rural, thinly populated areas where crops and game are available can survive. But communities coalesce. They have to. The roles of character, charisma, luck, and especially story in the nucleation of diverse new communities is endlessly fascinating. The way that language and culture evolve is endlessly fascinating. Given the technology for travel and communications (pre-industrial), there are endless byways to explore. One of my favorite sidebars was about an enclave of Boy Scouts whose plane crashed in the Rockies, coming home from the national JamboreeWikipedia has a really extensive entry on the series if you'd like more in the way of series background. 

After the third book, the nature of the series changes from post-apocalyptic-reactionary to future-low-tech-fantasy with a more supernatural spin on good vs. evil. The Big Bad takes the form of a sort of spirit or power that can possess humans. These humans lack free will, are controlled by the leader of this force, and are extra hard to kill. They're almost like golems. The possession mechanism seems to be protracted eye contact. Although there is a definitive victory in book 9, it seems that you can't keep a good demon down, and new incarnations appear. Starting with the 11th book, The Golden Princess, we embark on the third generation's adventures, which expand into the Pacific Rim with the appearance of Reiko, a young Japanese monarch whose destiny has some parallels with Órlaith, the titular princess.

OK, so FINALLY I can talk about this book, Prince of Outcasts.  Thanks for sticking with me so far! This here's a fightin' book. There are sea-battles, and jungle battles, and some nifty gadgety weapons. You know that scene with Q in every Bond movie? That happens, only with a sort of repeating-rifle-cross-bow thing. There's a sea monster in the southwest Pacific that's somehow connected to a dude in Boise. There are feuding islanders in an uneasy truce, led by Prince John and an eccentric female explorer-adventurer-quasi-royalty from Australia and England (Pip). There's a lot going on in this book.

I would call it more of a setting-up book than a big-conflict book, as evidenced by the cliff-hanger ending. There's no real resolution to the new storylines that are introduced. But if you're a fan of the series, you're going to enjoy the entrée into a new theater, an exploration of islander culture, and the hints of conspiracy threaded throughout.  As backstory for Pip, we get a little taste of the post-change Australia, re-imagined as Capricornia, and the rambunctious, stubbornly plebian society there, which is fun. There's some maneuvering back in Montival for Reiko's return to Japan.

This would definitely not be the book to jump into the Emberverse with. If you don't want to go all the way back to the beginning, I would start with The Golden Princess, or even The Desert and the Blade, just before this one. While longtime fans have run into this Big Bad before, I think the concept is sufficiently fleshed out in the last book or two that you don't need the background to appreciate the story.

Stirling's style is marked by detailed description of everyday life -- from food, to tools and weapons, to art and agriculture. He's a logistician and can tell you exactly how to move enough supplies for an army across two hundred miles of terrain. He's a strategist and can outline the military movements for archers, infantry, horse, or naval maneuvers. He's a politician and a sociologist and constructs alliances and feuds that shape his fictional universe as definitively as the 1998 real landscape of roads and raw materials. The technology of this alternate future is entirely the product of his ingenious brain but you'll believe that it sprang from a dozen different sources, products of diverse geography, history, resources, and culture. You may find this fascinating, or you may find it tedious. I admit to skimming a little bit sometimes. But mostly I love it.

He's also got a tendency to polarize the Good and the Bad. Good People are not sexist, racist, or homophobic. Good People pull their weight, do their share, and fight for what's right. Good People appreciate art and music and are respectful of each other and of the environment. Good People do not seek power for power's sake and do not take advantage of the weaker. His myriad civilizations pretty much fall one way or the other. There's not a lot of ambiguity. But while there might not be much moral complexity to the series, there is certainly no lack of texture, ingenuity, or adventure. Above all Stirling is a master storyteller, and this is one of my favorite series.

The Q-like scene (with a sample of the engineering detail):
Her prang-prangs opened up. They were basically huge crossbows with a set of leaf-springs at the front like a massive bowstave, but the devil was in the details and the engineers of Townsville Armory had come up with something quite devilish. Each had a simple hydraulic cocking mechanism that pulled a traveler back against the half-ton resistance of the springs and then released it if the triggers were held down. A hopper above fed six-inch steel darts machine-cut from rebar, given a crude point and spiral grooving to make it spin and provide some stability, letting one drop into the slot each time the traveler came back..

The power was provided by pairs of men sitting on the deck to either side of the weapon below the bulwark, the soles of their feet against each other and their hands on the bars of a rocking pump as they surged back and forth. Prang-prangs didn't have the range or the ship-killing battering power of conventional catapults. What they did have was speed.
Are you an Emberverse fan? what would you add?

Around the Web
Moe Lane (Cthulu? Really?)
Looks like reviews are a bit scarce so far. If you've reviewed this book, let me know in comments and I'll add your link!

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