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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Gathering Storm.

The Change destroyed the technological achievements of man, and prevents them from being recreated. In its wake, civilization died in all but a few guarded and lucky enclaves, along with 98% of the population. In the first trilogy, the forces of Free Oregon struggled to grow and survive against the SCA/gangsta fusion centered in Portland around the fearsome sociopath Norman Arminger. The good guys clustered around Wiccan singer and priestess Juniper Mackenzie (Clan Mackenzie), Marine Mike Havel (the Bearkillers), the Faculty Senate of Oregon State University (Corvallis) and the Benedictine Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski (Mount Angel Monastery and town). Free Oregon defeated one massive invasion from Portland, then the second invasion was aborted into a duel between Havel and Arminger, which saw both men kill each other, though the result was worse for the more fractious Protectorate. The armistice which followed left the Protectorate briefly destabilized and weakened by the treaty requirement that any of the serfs who wanted to leave the Protectorate were allowed to do so.

The beginning of The Sunrise Lands finds the Pacific Northwest in CY 21/22, and peace reigns following what is now referred to as the War of the Eye. The Corvallis Meeting defuses most disputes between the growing statelets. Another factor preserving the peace is the friendship between Mathilda Arminger and Rudi Mackenzie. Mathilda is the heir to the Protectorate throne, and Rudi has officially been "hailed" as "tanist," or assistant, to his Chieftain mother.

All is idyllic, and then a stranger from the "Sunrise Lands" east of the Mississippi stumbles into the Clan's largest city, pursued by a team of fanatical assassins.

The stranger, Ingolf Vogeler, has been to Nantucket, and desperately needs to talk to "the Son of the Bear" about a vision featuring a sword...

We don't see all of the familiar characters in this installment. We only hear about the Bearkillers, for instance. Ken Larssen has died in the interim, and Will Hutton no longer heads the Outfit, having relinquished the role to Signe Havel.

We also don't see any of the good guy Corvallans, though a developing reputation for Venetian slipperiness by the city-state's merchants is demonstrated in one scene. The lesson: don't try to pour snake oil on Astrid Loring.

Ah, yes--everyone's favorite bat-guano crazy Tolkien reader has settled into married life with Alleyne Loring rather nicely, though Alleyne and Eilir Hordle can only soften the edges of Astrid's LOTR fundamentalism.

How fundamentalist? The Dunedain Rangers are raising their kids from the cradle to speak Sindarin. Or as much Sindarin as can be cobbled together from "the Histories," as they are called. Little John Hordle remains a massive pillar of sanity and nicely reformulates a Dune aphorism for use by the Rangers. Via broad Hampshire, of course--right down to the "Oy!"

But the main perspective characters are, as can be imagined, Mathilda, Rudi and Ingolf. Also featuring as major perspective characters are Mary and Ritva Havel (Mike and Signe's oldest daughters), now proud and frighteningly effective Rangers; Baron Odard Liu, son of the late unlamented Eddie Liu; Edain Aylward, eldest son of Aylward the Archer; and the Benedictine warrior-priest Fr. Ignatius (born Karl Bergfried).

It is discovered that the assassins are from the Church Universal and Triumphant, a budding technology-hating syncretist theocracy growing in Montana-Wyoming area. Its leader is called The Prophet, and he's ripped right from history. The Church's military arm fights using tactics reminiscent of the Mongols and the Arab Muslims. Vogeler's vision jibes with the ones Juniper has had, so it is quickly decided that they will have to go to Nantucket to try to figure out what it means. Which, of course, means eventually braving one of the worst death zones on Earth, America east of the Mississippi (Excluding Northern Michigan, right? Right?), whose only two-legged survivors have devolved below the level of barbarism.

But they have to get by the CUT, first--and the Prophet knows about the vision, too....

Along the way we meet an Army Ranger bent on restoring the United States of America, right down to the successful collection of a handful of surviving Senators and Representatives, see a battle between the Prophet's forces and two opponents, go on a tiger hunt, experience betrayals, sword fights, Terminator quotes, comic book references, find out what the Ballad of Eskimo Nell sounds like in Sindarin, read a handwritten note from Benedict XVI and learn how to survive in a blizzard in the mountains. Oh, and did I mention possible visions from the future? Toss in nice nods to A Canticle For Leibowitz and the LOTR movie, and you have plenty to keep you busy.

Some of the Amazon reviews have argued that the series is turning into fantasy. I don't read it that way at all. Yes, the protagonists are getting some vivid visions and sendings, but the Alien Space Bats are probably capable of that, don't you think? There are some high stakes at work, and you can read (I'm speaking from speculation, not knowledge) hints of a battle going on beyond the character's perception.

Mild disappointments: The abrupt resolution of the Antipope Leo storyline--there was a creepy vibe that never quite got off the ground. Also, I like the Bearkillers a lot, and they don't show up here. Then again, it's a trilogy, and the way things are shaping up, that will be remedied.

Positives: Pretty much everything else. The plotlines are handled very crisply, and we get good looks at the major players, good and evil. And you can't avoid the nice deliberate nod to the Fellowship of the Ring, with Edain's turn as Sam Gamgee being especially apt. A lethal Samwise, but still our Sam. And the Catholic bits are especially well-handled and I'm not saying that to pat myself on the back. The Faith is handled with a welcome sensitivity, and easy caricatures aren't even on the radar.

It really is the best of the series, with the new post-Change world finally settling down and coming into its own. And, since it ends on a brutal trio of cliffhangers, you'll want the next installment in short order.

Not so BTW--TSL is in its third week on the New York Times Bestseller List. So you might as well start jumping on the bandwagon if you haven't already. There's still plenty of room.

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