I can forgive readers for wondering why The Protector's War didn't actually have a war in it. The war in the title was the looming threat, the elephant in the room that everyone in S. M. Stirling's post-technology world was trying to avoid getting trampled by. But by book three, we're good and ready for a little trampling.
In A Meeting at Corvallis, the continued peace in Oregon is growing more fragile by the day. It's maintained only by the fact that Mathilde, the young daughter of Norman Arminger, the self-styled "Lord Protector" of Portland, is the hostage of Lady Juniper Mackenzie, leader of the Dun Juniper clan of Wiccans. Juniper and her closest ally, Mike "Lord Bear" Havel of the Bearkillers, have maintained thriving independent colonies since the day, nine years before, that the Change wiped out all technology developed since the 20th century began (and some from before, like firearms). And they'd like to keep that independence.
But it's clear the Protector just isn't going to allow that, especially with Mathilde growing to enjoy her stay with the "devil worshiping" Mackenzies just a bit too much. (Christian readers are likely to take umbrage at the way the story sometimes feels like a "Wicca vs. Catholicism" thing, with the latter clearly not on the side of the angels.) Events come to a head following a summit meeting of all the area clans in Corvallis, now a wealthy city-state run in democratic fashion by former faculty members of the university. It's a subtly humorous bit of satire Stirling engages in here, as the old academics who run the show have far too waffly of a bureaucracy in place to get anything done effectively, and many have no stomach for a confrontation. At this point in the story, Stirling plays his ace of spades and gives his series the strong villain it's always needed. And it isn't the Protector. It's his wife, Sandra Arminger.
Sandra is no unidimensional harpy, nor is she a Cruella de Ville caricature. She's a cunning schemer, a classic villainess along the lines of Morgan le Fey, Philip Pullman's Mrs. Coulter and Lewis's Jadis. But she's an antagonist with her own contemporary style, a prototypical politician for Stirling's dog-eat-everybody world. Sandra's guile, her treachery and self-serving dishonesty are so remarkably au courant I half expected Sean Hannity to turn up in several scenes to cheer her on. Her performance at the Corvallis meeting, in which she masterfully makes mincemeat of her opponents through every bit of rhetorical misdirection in the TV pundit playbook, rings a depressing number of bells. This is a woman who would go far in America today, even without a Change to facilitate her rise. It's an understated bit of social commentary that raises my estimation of Stirling even higher than it was.
The boost in the series' dramatic strength does help to offset Stirling's usual indulgences, none of which he has really damped down here. Despite the added dimension to the story — with ample scenes showing more of the post-Change culture than we've yet seen — Stirling's prose is still obsessed with minutiae and detail for detail's sake. And there are times, as in previous volumes, the book's pacing falters. It often seems like Stirling cannot have a character riding down a country road without describing every flower, every tree, and every bird chirping from the branches that he passes. Whenever the Mackenzies hold a banquet or Wiccan ritual — which is often — you'd better settle in for a chapter that feels as long and exhausting as it would be to have actually attended the event. It's always a good thing when a writer takes care to make his world as real and as fleshed out as possible. But you can overdo it.
The good thing about A Meeting at Corvallis is that there is less of such indulgence than in the first two volumes (especially Dies the Fire), and a better emphasis on propelling the story to the action we've all been waiting for. This series works, in the end, not so much because of the originality of its plot — once the Change has been established, we are basically back into a traditional good-vs.-evil fantasy epic, making the obsession that heroine Astrid Larsson has with Tolkien less of a character quirk and more a postmodern bit of running self-commentary by Stirling — but because we are so attached to Stirling's characters. He's made his heroes real people about whom we care and with whom (despite all the chain mail and swordplay) we identify, and the way they have risen to heroic stature out of necessity and the instinct to survive and to thrive says something heartening about the potential in all of us.