I haven’t read everything that S.M. Stirling has written but I’ve read most of his work. The first of his books that I found was the second he released – “Marching Through Georgia” – in 1988. I’ve gone on to read every book in his three primary series – his Draka books, The Nantucket series and all of the Emberverse books – as well as most of his less prominent work. I’ve enjoyed almost everything he’s written – with the notable exception of his Shadowspawn books – not sure what was happening in his life when he wrote those but they were not good. Overall, I’m a pretty loyal fan and he’s given me many good years of reading. He creates fascinating, incredibly detailed, believable alternate realities rooted in our world’s history, he populates them with intriguing characters and he drops them into compelling conflicts.
Two things have always stood out to me with respect to his writing. First, Stirling must know more stuff about more things than any person alive. One of the many things that’s kept me reading the Emberverse novels is the incredible detail he writes into the stories about everything from bowcrafting to religion to medieval military tactics to agriculture and cooking. The guy is a walking Encyclopedia Britannica – a set of publications that anyone born in the last 25 years may not be familiar with – they were the closest thing to the Internet that all of us oldsters every had – and he does meticulous research. His books – in addition to being great, character driven stories – are always oddly educational – something I’ve always loved.
Second, he creates extremely strong female characters – not exclusively – the men populating his novels are fascinating – Rudy McKenzie, Mike Havel, Nigel & Alain Loring – but his female characters always seem to dominate – Juniper McKenzie, Signe Larrson, Sandra Arminger, Matilda Arminger and Tiphaine d’Ath and finally Orlaith and Reiko. They are the characters that the books inevitable seem to revolve around and they are compelling. Once you get past the first three Emberverse novels and you lose Mike Havel – with the exception of Rudi – the women drive the narrative – the men are there as wise councilors and / or strong right arms.
Given that the Emberverse novels are coming to a close with “The Sky Blue Wolves” in November of this year, I was excited to see him start a new alternate history with this book – first in “Tales From The Black Chamber”. It’s set in an alternate timeline during the second decade of the Twentieth Century – about the midpoint of WWI – with Teddy Roosevelt as President and leader of a new Progressive Republican Party. He’s doing something different here – eschewing the elements of spirituality, magic and mysticism that’s woven into the bones of the Emberverse – focusing on the technologies of the time – more in line with the world he created in the Nantucket novels. I was intrigued and very ready to see what he might do with this new story architecture.
Overall, I did really enjoy the book – it was a great story and Stirling created some great characters – particularly the protagonist – Luz O’Malley Arostegui. She is everything you’d ever want to see in a fearless, capable, unstoppable intelligence officer. I loved the premise that a progressive Teddy Roosevelt is crafting a new America built on progressive principles that in our world don’t see the light of day until the ’60s. I liked the idea that the U.S. – in this universe – has created an aggressive overseas intelligence organization – 15 years before Henry Stimson closed down the Cipher Bureau – using as his justification that “Gentlemen don’t read each others’ mail”. Stirling has built an intriguing world and his writing is – as always – superb.
Having said that, the book was just a bit of a slog for me – unusual for a Stirling novel – not a bad experience – just not as riveting as usual – and it took me more than half the book to understand why. Short to long – it’s the detail he writes into the story – usually a strength – but in this case not quite as compelling as is usually the case. In the Emberverse novels and the Nantucket stories, the amazing and rich detail that Stirling includes focuses on things that I do really find fascinating. With Emberverse, it’s the rediscovery and adoption of Medieval technologies in a world without power. In the Nantucket novels, it’s about taking the science and technology of the modern world and re-inventing it in such a way as to apply it in the Bronze Age. For me, both premises were compelling and I never really tired of the lessons that Stirling managed to teach. In the Emberverse series, I also really enjoyed watching the re-emergence of multiple pagan religions and mythologies in a post-modern world. I couldn’t get enough.
With this story, I just didn’t find the detail about early Twentieth Century technology, German cuisine and female fashion to be nearly as interesting. For me, it slowed the story down and made it drag at times. Where I normally fly through a Stirling novel, I felt like I was working a little too hard to finish this one. Again, it was a good book. It just didn’t work as well as so many of the wonderful books he’s written in past.
Short to long – a very good story with some compelling characters – extremely well-written. It just doesn’t bring that same magic that I normally find in Stirling books.