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The Protector's War

In a post-apocalyptic world, the cruel Lord Protector of Portland seeks to eliminate two clans that oppose him

*The Protector's War
*By S.M. Stirling
*Hardcover, Sept. 2005
*486 pages
*ISBN 0-451-46046-4
*MSRP: $24.95

Review by Paul Di Filippo

I n Dies the Fire (2004), we learned how mysterious Alien Space Bats wrecked Earth's civilization by imposing a new physics paradigm on the planet which made gunpowder, electricity, nuclear bombs and a host of other high-energy reactions impossible: Call it "the Change." In the wake of this collapse, the vast majority of the planet's humans died. But some who managed to survive now cluster around two charismatic leaders in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Juniper Mackenzie and Mike Havel run neighboring clans predicated on noble principles, comradeship and hard work. But up in Portland, Norman Arminger, the Lord Protector, and his wife Sandra have consolidated an empire larger than Havel's and Mackenzie's combined. And it's a brutal dictatorship based on slavery and intimidation.

Our Pick: A

Our sequel opens some eight years after the Change, in England. We are introduced to Nigel Loring, his son Alleyne, and their massive friend, "Little John" Hordle. The ex-military Lorings are persona non grata in the realm ruled by a batty King Charles, and so they need to escape the king's clutches and emigrate. We follow the trio across the devastated U.K. landscape and onto a ship bound for the New World—specifically, Portland. Small matters like pirate attacks and detention by Arminger will ensue.

Our second thread begins nine years after the Change, the realtime of the story. (The chronological disparity is necessary to allow the two threads ultimately to converge.) Clan Mackenzie and Havel's Bearkillers are flourishing, employing military acumen, bravery, technological ingenuity and hard labor to rebuild some semblance of civilization. But Arminger's expansion plans threaten everything they have built so far. Additionally, murderous bandits still roam the Valley. Dealing with all these problems is hard enough, until matters of dynastic succession are tossed into the mix. Rudi, the illegitimate son whom Havel fathered on Juniper in a one-night stand, is perceived as a threat by Havel's wife, Signe, who wants her own children with Havel to inherit the Bearkiller realm.

As skirmishes between the allied forces of Havel and Mackenzie and those of the Protectorate increase in intensity, the rulers must deal with internal tensions as well. They could really use a handy military genius to help them against Arminger. Which is just when Loring and crew ride into the Valley. ...

A bright and dangerous tomorrow

Aside from its faintly misleading title—actual full and declared war with the Protectorate is not yet underway even by book's end, presaging a third entry in the series—Stirling's new book can be considered an exemplary specimen of the post-apocalyptic tale. That SF subgenre has to blend hope with ashes, nostalgia for the old, dead civilization with excitement about building a new one, adventure with reflection, lost technology with its replacements and outmoded expectations with new paradigms dictated by the circumstances. All this Stirling does, with panache, insight and ingenuity.

He alternates massive, thrilling set pieces that are impeccably crafted—pirate attacks at sea, ambushes by bandits, a charge of feral British hippos—with quieter chapters that examine core human issues such as responsibility, love, justice, jealousy, camaraderie and spirituality. The blend is very effective. Just as your heart is racing fit to burst, you get a break.

Although the affairs of Havel and Mackenzie are captivating, I felt at first that Arminger's absence from center stage—he doesn't make an appearance until page 338—hindered the book. But then I decided that his lieutenants, particularly Eddie Liu and his giant henchman, represent him well enough. And when he does appear, his combination of preening and moral bankruptcy make for a striking portrait. And mention of Arminger leads me to a major allure of Stirling's novel.

Stirling's book is enlivened by his upfront moral partisanship. There's no secret here as to which parties in the conflict the author endorses, nor which traits and qualities he affirms as ethically paramount. Sure, the heroes have some moral lapses—witness Signe's subtle, almost unconscious attempted murder of Rudi—but the line between them and the villains never blurs. Justice in this fallen world is swift and deadly, and if you can't get behind a typical statement of Havel's, made when he's executing a robber—"[S]ome men it's just a pleasure to hang. ..."—then you might find yourself out of sync with the tone of this tale. But those readers who relish a battle between the forces of light and darkness, along with many frissons about what civilization means, are in for a rousing good time.

Stirling reminds me more and more of Poul Anderson—is it mere coincidence that a major character is named "Astrid," like Anderson's daughter?—as they share a similar primal outlook on life. This book makes me want to pick up Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) again. —Paul

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Also in this issue: Dogs of Truth, by Kit Reed


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