This is a book review for those who have read the previous 12 books of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series of apocalyptic fiction, but haven’t read the 13th book in the series, The Prince of Outcasts. If you have not read the series, stop right now and go buy the first novel Dies the Fire or better yet, go buy the 11-volume bundle and get the discount now. You’ll end up reading the whole thing anyway.
As for the current book, we pick up where The Desert and the Blade left off, on the coast of southern California, a great storm suddenly sweeping one of our protagonists off to the West, leaving our other protagonist on shore, trying to figure out what she’s going to tell their Mother.
Like the fourth through 12th novels of the series, this 13th installment isn’t a single contained story. The first three books of the Emberverse were a trilogy, telling a complete story about the first generation of those who survived the Change. The next three told a classic “beginning/middle/end” quest story of the next generation, but they’re not the whole of that story.
The next four after that continue the tale of the second generation, but the pacing and plot shift. No longer are we moving forward in quest-style story, but we’re jumping around in time and place, back and forth across the continent. The pace of the action slows to a crawl. And that’s the sticking point for some fans. They’re so used to a different pace that this feels too slow. In fact, one of the books feels like it’s all about just a single battle!
Finally in the 10th book, the enemy that has been the focus of the previous six is confronted. What’s next?
In the 11th book, we jump forward a couple decades to the third generation and the torch is passed. A new, but familiar enemy is confronted: the North Koreans have become a demonic force in the Pacific Ocean, eerily similar to the Cutters of Montana from before. But our heroes have a new ally as well in the remnant of Japan that clings to life against the North Korean horde. Having completed a sacred quest for a holy weapon (reminiscent of the earlier quest in books 4 through 6), the beginning of Prince of Outcasts, the third book of this third generation, sees the company of companions split by circumstances, half tossed (literally) to an area of the post-Change world we have not yet seen and the rest left to prepare for war.
The parts that focus on Prince John are the best bits, of course, given the title. We follow their epic journey across the ocean, pursued by a fanatical cannibalistic enemy into the Indonesian and Malaysian islands north of Australia. We also get a peek at Australia too.1 They get into a number of scrapes and battles, meeting interesting people, and pretty much have all the action.
Meanwhile, Princess Orlaith and her group don’t do much of anything. They travel here and there, and have lots of conversations, but not a lot actually happens.
Here’s the thing about the Emberverse series as it stands now. These books have come to feel more like Stirling’s exploration of this world and less like an attempt to tell a story about it. Don’t get me wrong: there is a good plot here with plenty of twists and turns. But Stirling wants to look at all the details, with pages written about meals and the food eaten and how they eat it and where it came from and what it tastes like. We have long descriptions of grasslands and cattle-grazing and harvesting and how people live in these post-apocalyptic communities that are based on pre-modern societies but with all the modern ideas of technology and hygiene.
That’s not to say it’s bad. World-building is one of my favorite pastimes. My favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was the king of world-builders. But Stirling may be the most obsessive of them all. He has admitted to creating such detail for his worlds that if you asked him about the economics of caravans in North Africa post-Change (an area of the world that has never entered his books), he’d be able to give lengthy notes. Because he’s already thought about it.
All that is to say that fans of the Emberverse will, of course, want to read Prince of Outcasts. Those who read some and dropped off, I would encourage to come back and try again. The pace has picked up a bit. And if you haven’t ventured into the world of the Change yet, come on in. It’s fun.
- Of course, when I said it was a previously unseen part of the world, I wasn’t entirely accurate. We actually saw Australia—and some of the characters who show up here—in one of the short stories found in the anthology “The Change.” In fact, quite a number of characters from those short stories ended up Stirling’s own writings. It gives the novels and their world a sense of depth. ↩