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Friday, October 20, 2006

And so it ends. For now.

[For the decreasing number of newbies to the Changeverse trilogy, here are my reviews of books one and two. Please be happily advised that the second trilogy is in the works, with the first volume due in print in autumn 2007.]

I'm going to keep this as major spoiler free as possible (the exception being references to Nigel. I mean, come on--the sample chapters have been up for the better part of ten months, people). The book portends a major change (rimshot!) in the direction of the growing series, so I'm going keep a lid on major plot points.

The final book in the Dies the Fire trilogy begins at the end of Change Year 9 (AD 2007) with an audience with the tyrannical Lord Protector of Portland and his supporters (including a renegade and unbalanced Catholic bishop turned anti-pope) and ends with a funeral procession and a wedding in the autumn of Change Year 10.

The nine months in between are the most momentous of the entire trilogy, with frenzied diplomatic manuevering, raids and finally, a full-blown war between the growing might of the Lord Protector and the patchwork of free Oregon states determined to resist him. And yes, there is indeed "a meeting at Corvallis" that figures prominently in the plot.

The time since the Protector's War has seen the Protectorate trying the diplomatic route for once, attempting to neutralize the commerce-minded Corvallan city-state and separate it from the free mini-states with which it shares a border. With some success, as Corvallis has a buffer which makes the threat from the Protectorate more theoretical. That, and business is business and business must grow, as the good Doctor once said. Regardless of swordpoints in tummies, you know.

The frontline states--the Bearkillers, Clan Mackenzie and Mount Angel--are far less sanguine, with the Protector's barons spilling their blood on a regular raiding basis. Conflict becomes inevitable.

We get continuing close looks at the Bearkillers and Mackenzies, especially the latter. But we also get, at long last, solid looks at the other two major Free Oregon statelets: Corvallis and Mount Angel.

The first to be seen is the home of the Oregon State University, Corvallis. It is a finely-detailed and interesting blend of the medieval and the late 19th century, with the latter manifesting itself in methane-fueled gaslights. There is even a newspaper again, but only for the well-heeled. Corvallis is a place that has adjusted to the Change and is prospering. And wants to keep it that way, thank you. As someone has put it--when shaking hands with a Corvallan, always make sure to count your fingers afterward. There are plenty of good folk in Corvallis who see the Protector's threat, but just as many who'd rather trade with him, up to and including selling him rope.

The other realm seen for the first time is of especial interest to Catholics: the abbey, town and redoubtable fortress of Mount Angel. Any lingering concerns by complainers that the western U.S. was somehow turning into WiccaWorld are thoroughly dispelled in this book.

A salient digging into the Protector's territory, the energetic monks and citizens of Mount Angel have turned it into an unassailable fortress. As one of the Protector's henchmen ruefully notes, "20,000 men led by the Archangel Michael couldn't take the place by storm." Headed by the courageous and capable ex-soldier turned Benedictine Abbot (and now Bishop) Dmwoski, the people of Mount Angel are particularly despised by the Portland anti-pope, Leo, who is gathering the cordwood for the auto de fe. Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski becomes a minor "perspective" character (we see briefly inside his head). The good-guy Catholics prove to be likeable characters, and essential to the plot. We also get subtle hints of the growth of Mount Angel's Catholic flock, e.g., a seemingly off-hand description of "a formerly Lutheran, and now Catholic, church."

We also get, courtesy of the three British "castaways," a picture of the surviving Church worldwide: savagely battered, but intact enough to hold a valid conclave. The Swiss Guards' ceremonial weaponry proves to be handy indeed, as it were. Indeed, Nigel Loring was fortunate enough to meet and speak with an familiar surviving Cardinal at the Church's new headquarters in the Appenines.

The main characters come into fuller relief, especially the quite mad but fully-functioning (and even more fully lethal Astrid), who has taken to the Changed world like a duck to water. She moves into a former State forest and sets up an organization called the Dunedain Rangers. It is now also crystal-clear that she regards Tolkien as Holy Writ. With deliberate laughter-inducing consequences at the Meeting.

Juney is still Juney, a mystic-turned-reluctant-chief-of-state with a conscience. Ken Larsson still gets to make big contraptions that shoot pointy things, though there's a hint that he's gone eccentric himself (he's worrying about another dinosaur killer asteroid). Nigel has settled in and become an ideal military advisor to the Mackenzies. Eilir and John Hordle have become a couple, and alongside Alleyne Loring, constitute Astrid's last anchors to reality. Mathilda and Rudy become more fleshed out and less precocious, and their friendship is an honest one honestly depicted.

But in AMAC I think it is Mike Havel who comes into the sharpest relief of any of the heroic characters. Intelligent, capable and ruefully aware of his limitations, he has become King in all but name. He makes choices that in this book that will affect not only the Bearkillers, but the other Oregon lands for generations.

And the villains. Yikes. Under the influence of anti-pope Leo, Arminger has settled down somewhat. Gone are the serving girls in fetish gear, and other overt scandals. Arminger goes so far as to admit that Leo has counselled him to be more forgiving. For whatever that is worth. But apart from that, he's still the charismatic, lidless eye of evil determined to subjugate as many people as quickly as possible. As much as Norman Arminger is a charming monster, it is his wife Sandra who becomes the deadlier of the pair. The difference being, she is more patient and far more subtle, preferring to outthink her opponents. Yet both have human touches, too--their geniune love of Mathilda, a sense of humor (e.g., a prank involving the rebirth of elevator music), and rueful regrets about the pre-Change world. Cardboard they ain't.

Entering the picture is one of Lady Sandra's henchwomen, Tiphaine (pronounced ti-FAHN-ee) Rutherton, who is about as un-Tiffany as it gets. For long-time Stirling fans, she evokes images of Yolande Ingolfsson, down to the estate and her understandable motivation to hurt the good guys.

Also entering the scene is the Protectorate's Marshal, Conrad Renfrew. Ruthless, fiercely intelligent and courageous, he has the clockweights to tell Norman Arminger to his face that the Protector screwed up. In another, and much quieter, moment, he acknowledges that his atheism is shaken.

Overall, the plotting flows nicely, with none of the (necessary) converging plot lines of the Protector's War. AMAC is more conventionally linear. The descriptive detail remains top notch. It's odd how I have been able to smell plowed ground and crushed pine needles in these books, to give but two examples. Another of my favorites is the description of a female character in mourning, "looking as she would when the last of her youth left her."

It's not flawless: a confrontation between a hero character and the anti-pope does not develop further, to my disappointment. There is a detour to a Protectorate estate that also slows the book down some (though it now makes more sense with the development of the fourth book, he says obliquely). I also think the Corvallans grow complacent a little too quickly, but I have to admit that the city-state retains more of the elbow-throwing American commercial mindset than do its neighbors, so that might have something to do with it.

But the book's minor flaws are far, far outweighed by its virtues, including a stunning climax and portentious coda involving Rudi. AMAC wraps up the first trilogy brilliantly and sets the table for the second trilogy.

Again, take and read.

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