The Protector's War, as I hoped it would be, is where S. M. Stirling's ambitious post-apocalyptic trilogy finally shifts into high gear. Building upon the often obsessively constructed foundations of Dies the Fire, this sequel broadens the scope of the story by giving us our first hints of how the Change — the unexplained event that left the world bereft of its last two centuries' technology in an instant — affected other parts of the globe, mainly England. And as you might have surmised from the title, it delivers at last upon the promise of powerful dramatic conflict that the previous book only teased us with.
The story opens eight years after the events in the first novel. The Pacific Northwest territories that were formerly states are now a smattering of holdings, duchies, communes, collectives, clans, what have you. Over the years they have formed agrarian societies that mostly work, and that have established treaties and alliances that have kept most conflicts at bay. Even the Lord Protector, the former history professor turned despot who rules Portland and its environs with an iron fist, has been generally respectful of boundaries and treaties. However, his embarrassing defeats in the first novel taught him a lesson he has taken to heart, and now his men are better trained and just as nasty. And quickly evidence mounts that his castle-building around the landscape of the former Oregon is meant, not for defense, but for offense.
The Protector is planning a war, and with his curious allegiance with foreigners from as far away as Tasmania, Mike Havel, lord of the Bearkillers of Larsdalen, and Lady Juniper, Wiccan leader of Clan Mackenzie, know that whatever trouble is brewing isn't going to be as easily dealt with as it was the year after the Change. With the Protector supporting roving bandits, looking the other way when his people violate boundaries of peaceful holdings, and shoring up his dynasty with a putative heiress, how long can it be before havoc is cried and the dogs of war have slipped?
This novel has the consistent excitement and dramatic tension that Dies the Fire only had in fits and starts, because the conflict is now centered upon the intentions of an antagonist more provocative than he was the first time around. Furthermore, now that Stirling has all of his setup out of the way, we now feel an even stronger attachment to his well-realized protagonists. Everyone is older and, in some cases, a little wiser. Mike Havel's now legendary status as Lord Bear is a duty he bears willingly, but one toward which he never allows himself to lose perspective. And there is familial conflict he must deal with, particularly regarding his own heirs, and the resentment his wife Signe has for his fathering a child with Lady Juniper (though it was done before he and Signe wed). Meanwhile, Signe's fantasy-obsessed sister Astrid and Juniper's daughter Eilir have become inseparable friends, ever since they took a blood oath in book one. Now in their early twenties, they've formed a Tolkien-inspired platoon of Rangers. But even Eilir is a little worried that Astrid is still as absorbed in the world of fantasy as she was at fourteen.
To this already powerful cast Stirling adds a group of refugees from England; Sir Nigel Loring has fled that green and no longer so pleasant land with his son Alleyne and several loyal followers. Stirling, for the first time, allows himself to engage in a little overt satire here; ol' Prince Charles has become King Charles, gone dotty (I knew his affection for astrology would lead to no good), and is now under the sway of a ruthless, Livia-like Icelandic queen. This is so beautiful I wish the book's early scenes in England had gone on longer. But it's enough that we get a cameo from Prince William and a swell battle with Moorish pirates off the coast of Africa, before Loring and company make it to America.
There are perhaps one or two obvious and/or ill-advised storytelling choices. Stirling's writing is as compulsively detailed as ever (the Lady Juniper chapters, as usual, suffering the most in pacing), but as there's stronger focus to the narrative there are fewer longueurs. I liked Nigel Loring, even if at times, with his "tally ho, eh what!" dialogue, he comes across like a living anachronism who's stepped out of a movie about the Boer War. Stirling also truncates the Lorings' ocean voyage. And when he establishes that Loring's son Alleyne is traveling with a set of signed, first edition Lord of the Rings hardcovers he liberated from a library, it's pretty evident that flighty Astrid might have a love interest in her future. We learn that shipping has returned in nearly as full force as the days of Horatio Hornblower, and I really would have like to have learned more about that. (Shoring up Stirling's Poul Anderson influence, the ship Loring escapes England aboard has a crewwoman named Dominique Flandry! Yeah, go ahead, push my buttons.)
But this is small beer. There's nothing in these quibbles that hampered to any significant degree my enjoyment of a story filled with characters I'd come to be quite fond of. Mostly, we have a marvelous adventure and a strong entry in an improving trilogy. The new characters and overseas settings are an immense asset, in that we finally see the global scope of the Change. Thus there's greater depth to the overall story.
Throughout, there is a thematic undercurrent that some might consider Luddite: the notion that technology breeds softness and complacency, and that most people in the modern world suddenly forced to survive the way people had to 300 years ago — living off the land, with every moment of peace the result of a hard-won fight against punishing odds — simply wouldn't make it. But I don't see it as being an anti-technology point of view. If anything, it's simply a reminder that the comfort we take for granted in our day-to-day lives is only there because, for centuries before us, people who had nothing but the clothes on their backs and the strength of their two arms built a civilization from the ground up. And we won't realize just how lucky we have it until we lose it. Just ask someone from New Orleans.
Followed by A Meeting at Corvallis.