Home > Books > The Tears of the Sun by S M Stirling

The Tears of the Sun by S M Stirling

The Tears of the Sun by S M Stirling (Roc, 2011) is yet another book in The Change series. From these few words, you will instantly see the problems. There are times the familiar Pavlovian response kicks in and, when you see the latest contribution to a series announced, you begin salivating, facing the door and waiting to savage the packaging as the book drops through the letter box. There are other times when you sigh heavily at the thought of having to read yet another brick added to the wall — apologies to Pink Floyd for appropriating their song title for such a context, yet it sums up the sense of dissociation that can spring up between an author and a reader. We might have started off on the same page (pun intended) but, after a while, I lose the plot (British idiom) and wander off to pastures new in the hope of finding greener grass.

The Change series all started in a not uninteresting way when everything stopped working. You know how it is. One moment, you have the television on and a batch of popcorn heating up, and the next all is quiet. Not a pop to be heard. You check the fusebox but, when you look outside, there are no lights anywhere. With a heavy sigh, you dig out some old candles and throw away the half-cooked corn. When the power stays out, you get bored and go to bed. When you awake and find there’s still no electricity, you begin to wonder. Actually, in the first book, Dies the Fire, the people realised rather more quickly because everything relying on electricity stopped working. That meant cars stopped in the streets and, for our heroes, the plane fell from the sky. There were peripheral problems in that machines relying on steam also went toes up and gunpowder lost its explosive effect — at least the survivors would be forced to use blunt instruments to take out their frustrations on each other.

S M Stirling wins an award for cuteness

So we have arrived at the eleventh book dealing with the consequences of this “magical” event. Sadly, science has never been able to explain who or what turned the off-switch except it may be connected to events in the Nantucket series, also by S M Stirling. In effect, The Change has become one of these peripatetic fantasy series in which successive heroes travel around the country, sampling the emergent cultures and exploring the extent to which it may be possible to cobble together alliances to restore wider area political control. When talking fails, as it does most of the time, there are local wars now depending on mediaeval levels of technology, i.e. the sword and the bow, although some with a more historical bent have resurrected the Roman military styles, and the Red Indians have been well placed to resume their informal cavalry approach. Most recently, the second-generation Rudi Mackenzie has picked up the Sword of the Lady which has interesting powers of prophesy for those who hold it — see how we morphed from reality into a fantasy based on feudal values without blinking. Perhaps of greater significance to those aiming to reconstitute a more peaceful world, there’s a real threat from the Church Universal and Triumphant that has powers of mind control — there’s probably something metaphorical intended here but, as with the inclusion of a group of Tolkienites, I can’t quite pin down what S M Stirling wants us to think.

Anyway, we now have King Rudi and Mathilda, his wife and Queen, on their way back home. Except, of course, there’s been a considerable amount of manoevring among those who were left behind with “nothing better to do” than plot their own advancement. So our happy couple not only have to set about planning to produce the children the Sword has shown them, but also consolidating their power base and preparing to confront all their enemies. Except the book does not advance us very far. There are a number of flashbacks intended fill in gaps and we’re moved around what’s left of the country to get updates. We see d’Ath in his role as the Grand Constable of the Portland Protectorate Association, catch some of the developments in the Wiccans and there’s action for the Dunedain Rangers as the powers of “good” try to get all their troops together in the right place at the right time for the final showdown. Except, of course, there are two or possibly three more books expected in this series so there can’t be a final, final showdown yet with the Cutters.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, The Tears of the Sun is about as exciting as watching paint dry. For all there are outbursts of fighting and some political intriguing, very little happens. We just visit with all the main characters to catch up and borrow a cup of sugar to show we’re good neighbours or not, as the case may be. My advice is therefore the standard. If you’re already a fan of this series, this is more detail to add to your enjoyment of this extended exploration of a changed America. But, if you have not read any of these books before, The Tears of the Sun is not the place to start. Go back to Dies the Fire and see whether that captures and holds your interest.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by S M Stirling, see:
The Council of Shadows
Shadows of the Falling Night.

  1. April 17, 2012 at 9:51 am

    This is precisely the problem Harry Turtledove has in his alternate history books; he casts a net of characters so wide it’s almost impossible to become invested in any of them. Sterling’s first Emberverse books were great, because he kept the action focused on two groups, with only small vignettes showing what the bad guys were doing. And of course the sheer pressure of events drove the plot along. The later books are still good, but aren’t great.

    • April 17, 2012 at 11:49 am

      It’s interesting you should pick on Harry Turtledove. We Brits have an idiom, “Never mind the quality, feel the width”. It originally applied to the sale of fabric but was then extended to apply to any area of human activity in which your money buys a lot in terms of volume, but little in terms of substance. It seems beautifully appropriate to “our Harry”. He’s a one-man alternate history machine, churning out book after book exploring a “what if” idea but with little discipline and an unappealing prose style. I suspect he sells because a loyal fan group are sufficiently interested to see what he does with each of the premises. S M Stirling has a convoluted prose style and becomes fixated by the minutiae of his creations, but he’s a better writer than Turtledove. A more interesting recent comparison is the Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. This was a five-book deal which was not extended. He therefore spent three-and-a-half books allowing the content to spread like a melting candle, and then spent the remaining one-and-a-half books trying desperately to find a way of ending it without completely losing authorial credibility. He failed to put the genie back in the bottle. It ends in a completely arbitrary way by switching styles to another of his series. Stirling has also trapped himself. For better or worse, The Change books sell. He therefore panders to that more limited market by giving his loyal fans what they want. In the process, he’s threatening to kill his more general appeal which is why he has been writing other books to keep his toe in the new reader market.

      • April 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm

        Don’t get me wrong–Turtledove can write some fun stuff, when he writes a tighter story. And Sterling’s Island in the Sea of Time is on my shelf. I also recommend a good Harry Harrison.

      • April 18, 2012 at 2:43 am

        I agree with the recommendation for the early Harrison. He’s a lovely man to talk to and, when on form as a writer in 1960s and 70s, there are few better. Unfortunately, as he aged, the fiction grew stolid. Among the more modern fiction, you might be interested in After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn.

  2. April 18, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Thank you for the tip. I’m already a fan of Vaugn’s Kitty books.

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