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The Protector’s War

S. M. Stirling


“In 1998 – at least according to Stirling - the laws of nature suffered a mysterious change: gunpowder can't explode, electrical devices don't work and the last 250 years of high-tech gadgetry suddenly are useless.  This sequel shows what has happened to the world since the collapse of civilization.  A group of people in the Pacific Northwest have joined together to rediscover old skills; Mike Havel, leader of the Bearkillers clan, and Wiccan priestess/folksinger Juniper Mackenzie help their followers adjust to new possibilities.  Nearby, however, kinky former college professor Norman Arminger is exploiting his knowledge of medieval lore to manage the Protectorate, a brutal and ruthlessly expanding dictatorship.”

From my own writing experience, it is considerably harder to create a world than write in it; you have to show how humans react to the changed – or Changed – circumstances.  In The Protector’s War, on the other hand, Stirling doesn’t have to revisit Dies The Fire; he can just get on with the story. 

Protector’s war, it should be noted, is something of a misleading title.  The war seems to be about to begin on the last page!  Instead, we get the manoeuvring up to the open conflict between the Forces of Good, in this care the alliance of the Bearkillers and the Wiccans, and the Forces of Evil, represented (evil laughter) by former medieval history professor Norman Arminger.  Despite the apparent clinch that that is, Stirling brings it off with skill and panache – I find that I care more for Arminger than most of his other villains.

Stirling has not pulled his punches when it comes to the sheer bloody horror of the time.  From England – a land now ruled by Mad King Charles and his Queen (no, not Diana or Camilla) – to the Protectorate, we see the ‘simple life’ that people talk about so wistfully.  It’s horrible.  Stirling is also willing to have his characters be both good and evil, with Signe’s reaction to Mike’s bastard son chilling and realistic.

Although the book is missing the appendixes that added such depth to most of Stirling’s books, the book is very strong, very well written and a fine sequel to Dies The Fire.  It’s great to see what’s been happening in the rest of the world as well.

Roll on the next one…

(Right, spoilers coming…click away if you don’t want to be spoiled…you have been warned…don’t blame me…get the idea?)

There are some points in the novel that simply don’t ring right, notably the almost-complete absence of democracy.  While the good guys do seem to have more of it – the Wiccans most of all – the others seem intent upon recreating the medieval era, complete with knights in armour.  Norman Arminger, especially, has created a land of slaves and other horrors.  King Charles rules without a Parliament, but with Icelandic immigrants pulling the strings.

The problem with that is democracy is part of the modern world.  I’ll buy Arminger establishing the Protectorate in the chaos following the Change, but how can it have survived past the first handful of years?  The Protectorate abuses its citizens – many of whom will want to rebel against him.  Ok, they don’t have guns…but the post-Change world is filled with items that can be used for weapons.  What about petrol used as a Molotov Cocktail?  How bad would that be for a medieval knight?  The Protectorate depends upon an unspoken social contract, one that was broken long ago.  Arminger cannot trust his servants and indeed most of his lords, each of whom will not have the automatic deference to the crown that English noblemen at least pretended to show.  Arminger’s success depends upon maintaining a perfect balancing act; any slip and he’s dead.

Even without any access to modern tools, it is worth noting that in the fourteenth century the peasants in England revolted against King Richard (and, more importantly, the landlords).  That revolt came to the brink of success and only failed because of the respect that the peasants had for the teenage King; something that cost them the war.  The citizens of the Protectorate do not have that respect, which may have only existed because Richard wasn’t directly involved in pressing them.  (Absent a time machine we’ll probably never know).

The future conflict in the Bearkillers camp is likely to be worse, for Rudi is a civil war waiting to happen.  Signe setting him up to die is likely to go down as a POD, for Rudi may have at least a friendship with the Heir to Arminger’s throne.  How is the next Lord Bear to be selected?  Are the A-listers to act as nobles, despite the fact that at least one of them was taking advantage of his post for personal advantage?  Sooner or later, there’s going to be a revolt…

Solving the problem is simple, provided that Mike acts in the correct manner.  Separating ‘Lord Bear’ from his family and making it an elective post – and not a hereditary post – would prevent Rudi from trying to claim his rights as Mike’s firstborn son, the more so because many people would see advantages in uniting both parties – and perhaps whatever comes out of the Protectorate.

On a different note, King Charles is an unlikely King for the UK.  At the time of the Change, Charles was…well, certainly actively disliked by many people who bought into the Diana Myth, not a figure to inspire confidence in people as clear-sighted as Loring.  I also don’t buy almost all of the UK being depopulated; while the lower parts of England would be seriously depopulated, the highlands would survive.  Places up as far north as John O’Groats and the Islands would be out of walking range for the population, so they would survive.

(I don’t know if A Meeting At Corvallis will go back to England, but I for one would love a book on the coming struggle against Mad King Charles.)

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