Today's book review is The Scourge of God by S. M. Stirling.
This is a direct sequel to The Sunrise Lands and the next book in the ongoing Change series. It picks up from the cliffhanger ending of The Sunrise Lands. I would definitely not recommend trying to jump into the middle of this. At the other end, we're still in the middle of the ongoing story, and it's frustrating to have to stop, but it's a much less extreme cliffhanger ending than the last one or some of Steve's other books. Quite a lot of graphic violence. A little bit of sex.
This is still very much the same engaging world as the previous Change novels. The story and the characters hold my attention very thoroughly, and I enjoy the world quite a lot even as I find it hard to keep track of all the threads of the plot and who the minor characters are, and even as I find the graphic violence stretching my tolerance. Between the knee deep in gore battle scenes there's some deeper exploration of some of the characters and quite a lot of spiritual stuff. This spiritual stuff draws on a number of different traditions and would doubtless offend followers of any of them who feel that their dogmas must be kept pure, but to anyone with an open mind, it ought to be interesting. We're getting hints of an overall story or explanation of the doings in the spiritual world that seem to make a lot of sense overall. The human story is a good rollicking quest and tightly written, but frankly there's a lot of fantasy out there; this is better than a lot of it, but the quest and the battles aren't especially original. The spiritual side of the story does have a lot of familiar aspects, but it seems to actually working its way to something more original, or at least new to me, and interesting.
8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
At the end of the last book, Mathilda, Ingolf, and Odard had been taken prisoner by the Cutters while Rudi and the rest of the band, along with Fred Thurston, barely escaped Martin's treacherous usurpation of the leadership of Boise. Also at the end of the last book, a new and even scarier Prophet, Sethaz, has ascended to power in the CUT.
This book opens with Rudi's half of the group regrouping and pulling off a daring rescue of Mathilda and Ingolf. Back in Oregon, the Mackenzies and their allies are coming to accept the reality that a real, serious war against the CUT is inevitable, and they identify their first move as forcibly bringing Pendleton, a disagreeable bunch of slave traders, to their side rather than having to fight them.
Rudi has the personal attention of Sethaz (or the power that is controlling him, if there's a difference), who is putting a lot of resources into recapturing him. In the course of the rescue, Rudi fights with the traitor Kuttner. Rudi kills him several times over, but he keeps coming, and the good guys have to cut him to little pieces before the thing possessing him gives up. Rudi is choked almost to death, but they manage to get away. A CUT officer named Graber gets promoted and personally tasked with capturing Rudi. He employs another creepy Seeker (a minion of Sathaz' master). The quest band encounters a small band of Deseret refugees and helps them, even though it slows them down dangerously. They reach the formerly free town of Picabo, Idaho, to discover that it's lately been taken by CUT forces. Rudi can't leave the women and children to slavery, so he poses as a trader trying to buy them. There is a fight between the bad guy leader's idiot son and Edain that threatens to start an open battle, but ends up with Edain challenged to do the William Tell thing with Rebecca Nystrup from the refugee band. He fails, killing her. They end up organizing a rebellion in the town; the townfolk who survive the battle escape with the Deseret folks while the quest party narrowly escapes. Rudi is badly injured.
While this is happening, Portland has been putting together an army, but rather than a stand up fight, Astrid and the Rangers have been putting together an elaborate plot to assassinate the leader of Pendleton. They were not expecting Sethaz and Martin to already be present. Their assault on the big party doesn't work out as well as they'd planned, but they escape. Their army is unexpectedly outnumbered and they have a tough fight to escape without being wiped out. Chuck Barstow dies in the valiant defense.
With winter approaching, the party is very worried about moving the wounded Rudi. They're in a marginal hiding place when the enemy scout catches them. He is a somewhat amusing latter-day Boy Scout, descended from a bunch of Scouts who got caught out in the wilderness in the Change and adopted it as a real way of life to survive. He's only a mercenary for the CUT, not an actual ally. In the fight, Mary is badly injured, losing an eye, but in exchange for his own life the scout agrees to leave them alone. The wounded Rudi meets Odin in a dream while Father Ignatius finds a fragment of cursed arrowhead in the wound in his back. Then they find their way to a Buddhist monestary in the Tetons, where they spend the winter recovering and receiving instruction.
Come spring, the party meet a woman named Virginia Kane who's running to escape being made a slave as the Cutters take over her family's holding. They escape into Sioux territory, where they run into a patrol that was mad at them for taking a buffalo, but Virginia is a friend, so they come to an accommodation. Then Graber's pursuing Cutters catch up. Instead of a stand up fight there is a series of ritual challenges. Rudi kicks Graber's ass, but instead of killing him, leaves him wounded. Then the real fight gets mixed up with a huge bunch of lions, and the larger Sioux band arrives to save the day. Rudi saves Chief Red Leaf's son and is adopted into the tribe. Then a big Cutter force arrives while the Sioux are finishing up their buffalo hunt. The party escapes by putting the migrating buffalo herd between themselves and the invading army.
We then quickly skip over a bunch of country until we get to Iowa. Iowa came through the Change very well and is prosperous. Ingolf has an old friend, a farmer holding a large (by pre-Change) standards farm, who takes them in. They go to Des Moines to try to arrange passage to the east. Unfortunately, Ingolf's previous trip east had been sponsored by the nasty Governor Heasleroad, who now has Graber as a guest, and he's not keen to let things go well. He allows Ingolf to go to Illinois and recover the loot that he'd gotten that far before Kuttner betrayed him, but Rudi and Mathilda are to be held as hostages in Des Moines, and if he doesn't return (very quickly) with Heasleroad's loot, they're supposedly going to be killed.