Book Review: The High King of Montival, by S.M. Stirling

Roc
481 pp.

The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change (Change Series)In The High King of Montival, Rudi has gained the Sword of the Lady, been declared High King by his companions and now is ready to build an army and make alliances with the groups he has encountered on his quest. His first recruits are an Asatru community that formed itself up in Maine. As he works his way back along the way he traveled, he picks up more people and establishes the eastern-most boundary of his notional kingdom. Meanwhile, people back home are meeting envoys from the various groups Rudi encountered, and continuing their war with the Church Universal and Triumphant (while also waiting for Rudi to turn up with the Sword in classic Big Fat Fantasy Novel fashion.)

Strange and eerie things seem to be happening in the wake of Rudi getting the Sword. Many of the characters have sudden changes in their personality, or seem to be having second thoughts about their worldview. In addition, the “good guys” in the conflict are experiencing a boost in power, and it is fairly clear that the reason is attached to the Sword of the Lady. These changes are played as a positive thing, though another writer probably would have made it a lot more creepy and disturbing. (If you look beyond the Big Fat Fantasy setup, it is still disturbing but only in a meta sense, not a “within context of the story” sense, because the writer isn’t working from that angle.)

This book has a definite “feel” of a Big Fat Fantasy novel while still being grounded in science fiction. (If science fiction where the technology is of the “Might As Well Be Magic” variety.) This is either part of the problem or part of the charm of the series. I very much do not like the underlying worldbuilding, which involves large-scale manipulation at the hands of two groups of post-humans who are apparently at war with each other and are using their human descendant-ancestors-relatives as pawns. (It was not put that way in the series, and it’s apparently not a concept intended by the writer, but that is how it appears if you take away the ponies and rainbows–helpless people being jerked around by wannabe god-things.)

I’m not happy with the continuing theme of “women are jealous irrational cats when it comes to their men sowing wild oats,” and the ham-handed “women are from Venus,” shtick that we keep getting. On the other hand, I liked the action sequences, and some of the fantasy aspects of the series. I also like that Rudi has some severe misgivings about the nature of the Sword, which he knows is doing strange things to his mind. (There is also some evidence that the Sword is possibly doing strange things to the minds of everyone around him, especially when the Sword comes into physical contact with that someone.)

I’m a little annoyed and frustrated with a tacked on romance between Edain and Asgerd, a girl that was introduced at the end of The Sword of the Lady.  I wish the relationship between Edain and Asgerd  had been developed more, instead of coming out of the blue. (Mostly because it makes the failed/aborted almost romance between Edain and a Mormon girl–who ends up getting killed by Edain because of a archery contest– in Sword of the Lady seem like a very convenient cheat to create angst.) I’m still not really buying the relationship-romance between Mathilde and Rudi, but I do like the “partnership” aspects of their relationship. (Every time they bring up Odard I keep being smacked with “post-humans are writing AU Arthurian fanfiction” vibes, because it seems pretty obvious Odard was intended to be a pseudo-Lancelot to Rudi’s Arthur and Mathilde’s Guinevere.)

The book is entertaining, if you try not to think about the details too hard. (This is pretty much my attitude toward many of the books written by this writer.)  The combination of hard sf with Big Fat Fantasy could probably use a little work, and might be a little off-putting for people who prefer one or the other, but not both at the same time.

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Filed under anomaly/nexus, apocalyptic, book, fantasy elements, near future, Review: Book, S.M. Stirling, science fiction

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