Friday, November 10, 2017

S.M. Stirling, The Sea Peoples, a Review

The Sea Peoples is S.M. Stirling's fourteenth novel in his Change series, if one counts the anthology The Change, which he contributed to and edited. The fourth novel in the third generation cycle of the series, although not one of the best achievements in this series, The Sea Peoples is certainly not the worst of the batch--let's call it four stars out of five. The fleshing out of secondary characters and the introduction of an extended excursion into magic are two reasons why this particular addition to the series is a significant contribution to Stirling's alternative reality oeuvre.

The secondary characters introduced in the first works of this cycle of the series mix it up, providing most of the action as they engage in their dreamtime, magical quest. Captain Pip (Lady Philippa Balwyn-Abercrombie) is one interesting character, a roustabout with aristocratic ancestors, dressed in "white shirt and shorts black as her boots and suspenders and steel-lined bowler hat." She is paired with Toa, a Maorian who is Pip's protector, although she hardly needs protecting. The quest group also includes Deor Godulfson, a Nordic scop and totemic magician; and Thora Garwood, a Bearkiller female warrior and fighting partner to Godulfson.

This quest group must enter into the dreamscape of alternative realities/magical possibilities to rescue a fellow warrior, utilizing their individual animal spirits to keep their souls safe from the evil that contaminates the realities they navigate. Stirling's development of these characters, their interactions with one another, and their individual traits keep the action lively and fresh. Their individual skills also allow for their journey into the fluid realities of several worlds--possible realities that have diverged from their original homeland. This shape-shifting of reality is a tip of the hat to the legacy of Roger Zelazny's fantasy Amber series. Stirling carries it off well, and this soul quest through apocalyptic landscapes is the main action in the novel. Part of the pleasure of reading this novel is to experience the development and mastery of the characteristics of the new world three generations after the Change. The world Changed, and forty-six years later, the children of the world understand and work much more successfully with the new rules of existence.

Princesses Orlaith and Reiko travel to Hawaii in this novel, and that thread of action includes the massive sea battle at the end. Stirling's good at sea battles, as seen in other novels in this series; however, the development of the Hawaii action is overshadowed by the dream question plot strand. This is a weakness of the novel, even though it was necessary to further the plot so that the next novel in the series can move forward--cumbersome, but the job got done. Prince John is also in this novel (the main character in the novel prior, Prince of Outcasts), and his character is more three-dimensional than in the previous novel, although the prince is actively present in only a small part of the novel.

The final good news about The Sea Peoples is that it doesn't end with a cliffhanger. There is a good sense of closure for this novel--and then an epilogue that tantalizes us with a hint at where the next novel will lead. Considering the perspective of the first novel of this series, Dies the Fire, Stirling's most recent contribution reveals just how different the world has changed since the Change. His new foray into earth magic keeps the series from just being a continual slog of enemies and battles and new generations doing the same old things. Reading this third-generation cycle of novels has been and up-and-down experience, and I'm glad that this novel was a good steady-as-she-goes contribution to this alternative history.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Enjoying a New Writing Environment

Actually, I would be enjoying this environment whether I were writing or not, but I'm still writing every day and also sight-seeing. I especially enjoy seeing the different plants and birds out here in southern California. The mission architecture is also a beautiful change from Midwest clapboard white. Although I don't enjoy sharing this space with millions of other people, I've found that walking increases my enjoyment. Driving in a car is rather like being a NASCAR driver, with the only reward being arrival at the destination unscathed.

From where I am staying at my in-laws' house, it't about a two-mile walk to the beach, about a third on the level of the spine of a hill, and the rest downhill to sea level. I saw some beautiful homes and some huge eucalyptus and pine trees today on my hike.

A Mediterranean-style home with some tropical trees.
Here is one street-corner home I passed on my walk. It didn't have the huge trees but was a beautiful combination of flora definitely not present in the Midwest, and of the Spanish mission-style architecture.

We also spent some time on a pier at Oceanside, and to see the locals fishing was fun. They were actually catching some silver fish about ten inches long. They had a long haul to get them up from the water to the pier, though. I don't know how successful they would have been with a really big catch!

Quite a few anglers of Asian ancestry, catching fresh food for dinner.
From appearances, some of the anglers fished regularly from the pier. They were organized with their gear and bait, and treated the tourists (me) like someone would treat a chipmunk or rabbit in the Midwest--by ignoring me because I'm one of a million!

Of course, the ocean was the predominant geographic reality, the sounds of waves breaking on the shore and splashing against the pier's pilings, the open horizon and the blues of the water and sky, the sea smells of sea life and seawater. It was also enjoyable to be out on an unusually hot day for this time of year--in the high 80's--when we are experiencing much cooler weather in the Midwest.

All the people were enjoying the ocean, including surfers farther out.
On today's walk I also stopped at the local refurbished train station, where a local commuter train regularly stops and Amtrak's Surfliner stops a few times a day. Perhaps some day I'll take the train and enjoy a ride up the coast. I'm told lows reach the 40's in the winter, which will seem quite warm if I come out from winter weather in the Midwest. It could even be 40 degrees warmer! Positively balmy :)

It's a joy to take the time to write on my current project, and to also spend time on this blog again. I'm just short of 7,000 words A Mage That Gathers.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Mom: Nice at 92

"I'm not seeing too well," my mom says, and of course she's right.

With macular degeneration, all she sees are outlines. "Everything's fuzzy," she says. And with her hearing levels at maybe 25 percent in one ear with her hearing aid, Mom's interaction with the world is limited. Living in her home, where she is familiar with where everything is, Mom is still able to get by, though, with the help of my brother and with an IHSS county caregiver. She washes and dresses herself, makes her bed, and does some occasional cleaning.

"I know where you got your kindness," my wife tells me, and it's true that my mom has maintained her positive attitude even with the limitations she now experiences.

This trip to California, my wife Sandy and I both visited my mom and brother. Since both my wife and I have obligations to our families, we have split our time for the past years in order to keep our trips shorter or to have someone at home for our immediate family. Now we are in southern California, where we will visit Sandy's son and her parents.

The air quality has been poor with the pollution and smoke from fires. We drove from northern California to the south, catching the orchards, the rice paddies, and the oil fields. We saw an immense solar energy array. We saw clouds of dust from harvest, billowing masses of smoke from horizon to horizon from the forest fires. We saw orchards and orchards of pistachio trees.

Now we are heading to the Pacific Ocean, where I will walk on the beach and experience the sea, something I have not done for quite a while.

As I left Mom's house, she told me I have a good wife and that she's happy for me. God bless my mom. At ninety-two years old, she still always has something nice to say.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Still Writing Even While Traveling

Making my goal of three hundred words a day has been easy so far, even while traveling.

I'm caught up with my previous writing now, and will continue to develop the plot, using the device of splitting chapters and points of view between two characters, utilizing third-person point of view. I've never developed a story that shifts from two characters, although I enjoy reading such, so I'm excited about working with such an organization.

A couple of weeks have added up to over five thousand words. That's not really a lot; the most important thing is that I've been writing every day on the project. Over the weekend, my wife will be engaged on business with her family, and I will be in a hotel room pretty much in the middle of Nowhere, California. I intend to spend those hours writing longer than just the time needed to write three hundred words. That will be fun.

I remember when I began writing The Stone Dragon over a Thanksgiving vacation. By the time the vacation ended, I had written over seven thousand words and had the novel concept firmly in mind and begun on "paper." First I see through the window, then I climb through the window, and then I'm out and about, exploring and discovering.

I'll be checking out of the motel room soon and then heading out to visit my mother and brother, after that off to southern California in a rental car. Really, though, I'm in the mountains with Gnossos and Alma-Ata, with Ocean, River, and Rain, the three sisters. I'm trekking with a mud dragon and my donkey to a local village smithy to wield dragonfire to forge a magic sword.

Sound like fun? In a couple of years, you can buy the book and join the adventure!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Seven Days of Writing

Well, my last post for this blog was in September, four months--a record, I think, and not one I want to celebrate!

I have been writing some from my bicycling blog, and I've also done some spot writing, flash fiction and a little on my novel, A Mage that Gathers.

I'm happy that for the last seven days, I've stuck to the routine of writing in the early morning at least three hundred words. This is just a small amount, but what I'm working toward is establishing a routine. Three hundred words a day means 2,100 words a week, times 52 comes to 109,200 words in a year--or the rough draft of a novel.

Oddly enough, it was easier to establish regular writing times when I was teaching full-time. The times available for writing were definite and limited, so I had to take them: 5:00 AM every day, or 1:57 PM, for example. Now time is more fluid and seems to slip through my fingers, even though my activity is meaningful and purposeful.

So I'm glad to be writing regularly for a week. Those words-per-day can extend over time. I'm traveling with my wife soon, so I'll have time on the plane, or time in the hotel room while my wife is away with her business. If travel interferes on a particular day, I still have the 2,100-word goal for each week.

I have this picture in my head: it's November and getting cold in Iowa, but I'm camping, bundled up with wool underwear, flannel-lined pants and down coat. I'm sitting in my camp chair next to a fire, tent behind me. My laptop is open, and I am typing. I'm wearing brown jersey cotton gloves, the fingers cut off. It's cold but the fire is warm. It's quiet in the campground. Geese vee to the lake, sounding their distant calls. I'm writing, a cup of chai near at hand. I stand, place my laptop on the chair, and then add wood to the fire.

The reality might be that I'm sitting there, shivering so hard I can't think or type, but the picture in my mind is a nice one. I hope to try it this year. I have warm clothes. I have wood and matches for the fire. I have my sweet little laptop. It might happen.

If not, then change that to me sitting beside my woodstove. It's snowing outside, and that silence of falling snow permeates even through the walls of the house. The soft sounds of my fingers working the keyboard break the silence, hardly a description to be found in a Jack London novel. "Buck rested his large head on John Thornton's thigh, gazing devotedly up as the man's fingers typed out an email order for frozen fish for the sled dogs."

Oh, well. Times change, but at least for the last week I've managed to get myself back into harness. Mush!