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The Scourge of God

by S.M. Stirling

Published by ROC Books

Print edition September 2008

Reviewed by Dale Arnold

Review posted 9/10/08

This novel fits into a series and explaining how it fits is quite complex. Stirling wrote a marvelous book titled “Island in the Sea of Time” and followed it up with two other novels which chronicled the adventures of the Island of Nantucket transported from our modern era back to 3000BC. Subsequently he wrote another trilogy detailing the modern era that Nantucket left behind and the after effects in the late 1990’s from the event that blasted an island thousands of years backward in time. No one knows if space aliens, god or chance caused the change—but the results in the story are clear. Basically the laws of physics in the modern world were altered in some way making modern technology fail and driving humanity a bit mentally unstable due to changes in electrical field functioning in the brain. This created a world in which primitive technology hobbyists like the society for creative anachronism became very important and institutions fell only to be replaced by more basic systems like feudal bonds of loyalty.

For example one Lord of the Rings obsessed teen managed to convince others that the LOTR held a better blueprint for a society and founded a forest loving conclave of Rangers. Of note is the development of Wicca into a majority religion in one political unit due to random chance and the breakdown of trust in older social institutions. In any case a trilogy by Stirling examined the founding of new societies in the former states of Washington and Oregon with the defeat of a particularly nasty tyrant establishing a more stable order.

Then Stirling wrote a book called the Sunrise Lands which followed this history 20 years after the event. A child from the previous trilogy has grown up into an extraordinary warrior and member of the Mackenzie clan a political unit founded by Wicca practitioners. Rudi Mackenzie is the protagonist of the Sunrise Lands and Scourge of God novels and has been foreshadowed to have a mythic role even back in the earlier trilogy. The aftereffects of the event seem to have either unbalanced humans to make them more likely to experience religious delusions or to have made them more sensitive to real supernatural forces. In either case the force of magic becomes real in political and societal terms because people are willing to make it a real at least in terms of behavior. Signs and portents indicate to the Mackenzie clan that Rudi must travel to the Island of Nantucket where the landscape was swapped, the modern island for the ancient island, by the event leaving a small rift in time. Inside the swirling rift in time many universes phase in and out and one shows a sword. To a society of Wicca practitioners strongly influenced by the LOTR books such a situation calls for only one response. So off Rudi and a small group of companions, nine in number as a fellowship requires, go on a quest to retrieve the sword. Naturally as a plot device to create conflict a rival, and very not nice society, decides that if the Mackenzie clan wants a magic sword than they want to stop them from securing it. Hence, stage for a quest novel is set as the fellowship travels across a blasted America seeking a sword and destiny.

I would suggest that one does not need to read anything in the series save for the Sunrise Lands before reading The Scourge of God. These two novels as a set stand on their own forming an enjoyable whole. Of course the other novels are excellent and fun, but each of the trilogies mentioned above form separate story sets. In an earlier era, when marketing did not insist on certain lengths of word count per book, all of these trilogies would be collapsed into three very long War and Peace type novels.

Scourge of God is fine story with a clear author’s voice. The protagonist is noble, complex and admirable while the supporting characters in the fellowship show conflicting agendas reasonable for the story. The villains are truly evil and are driven by internal demons regardless of such demons being real or mental aberrations. Many inside jokes related to differing worldviews are revealed like when Rudi introduces himself to an older pre-change political leader of questionable stability, “I am Rudi Mackenzie of the clan Mackenzie.” And the oldster says “Ah yes, there can be only one.” To Rudi a reference to the Highlander TV series is completely irrelevant because he has never seen a functioning TV and finds old folks talking about TV and cell phones weird, but he can recite Beowulf from memory because it holds meaning in his life experience--reminding us all that culture changes and not necessarily in ways we might expect.

In particular the differing attitudes toward lifespan and sudden death are explored in a subtitle manor. The pre-change adults have a “modern” view of death worn down by constant experience, but the post-change children now in early adulthood look upon death and a lifespan reduced from the technological era as normal and natural. This reminds us that all of us filter our perceptions through a worldview in 2008 where people regularly reach ages over 60 and death of the young is not an expected occurrence. Cities are full of life and not a feared death trap and historical tragedy of starvation to us, but a nightmare specter to the post-change view. Perhaps this view of post-change America will make us understand the Roman citizens in the late empire as they watched their world decay around them.

So… if you want a fun post apocalypse quest story with a twist read the Scourge of God. It passes my fun and interesting test.

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