Dies the Fire by Stirling, S. M., 2004

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Dies the Fire, by S.M. Stirling was pretty good, very readable, and kept me interested. I give it a three out of five stars. The premise of the book is that some unexplained weather phenomenon over Mass caused some sort of discharge of energy that had the effect of rendering useless all firearms and most engines, including internal combustion and steam engines, but not things like hot air balloon heat generating engines. The laws of physics were changed in some way so that energy releasing explosions no longer packed the punch they had before "The Change." That is to say, gunpowder still flamed, but not enough to push a piece of lead. Steam engines still ran up a head, but not enough to move a cart or locomotive. Electronics were fried so badly that nothing at all worked afterward. Zippos and campfires worked fine, though.

Despite a hokey sounding premise, the book was pretty good, because it wasn't about finding out what happened and fixing it, but about how the people were going to live thereafter. The basic story is about two groups of people who survived the initial shock of it all. One, led by a Wiccan witch named Juniper, moved from the city to a farm she had in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and set up a coven based on Scottish/Irish medieval lifestyle. The other was a party of what essentially became wandering traders led by an ex-marine half-Finn, half-Native American bush pilot named Havel, called the Bearkillers, after an incident that occurred just after the Change. Both groups gathered new members as time went along. Juniper pretty much took anyone who knocked at her door, but Havel was a little more choosy, taking only those with skills necessary to survival. One of the more hard to believe parts of the book was how SCA, bowers, master equestrians, master fencers, armorers, siege equipment engineers, 13-year old master archers, and former infantry and cavalry members came out of the woodwork after the change and offered their services to either group. I always thought that Oregon and Idaho may have more than their fair shares of these kinds of people, but it all was a little too convenient.

So the major part of the story was about consolidation of power and peoples, and construction of infrastructure to survive. That part of the story was spelled out in detail not meticulous enough to be boring. But the last 1/5 of the book was about conflict with an overlord from Portland (an SCA-type history professor who saw as soon as the Change occurred how to take control), who used brutal tactics to basically enslave the farmers around the city. He took biker gangs and the like and turned them into crack raiders and reivers, who then extracted a "tax" from all the surrounding ranches and farms in this name. The influence of this "Protector" (who is the weakest and most poorly crafted character in the book) soon spread to lands occupied by Juniper's enclave's neighbors, and war ensued. An this is where Stirling lost me. Up until this point the book, especially the parts about Havel, were very well written, and despite the above problems, believable and enjoyable. But as soon as the major combat started, Stirling lost me. It was just too chaotic a situation for him to describe accurately. He did make a valiant effort, but jumped around too much and skipped too many parts to keep me involved. I speed-read the last 60 pages as I was getting bored.

As an author, Stirling could be worse. The cover of the book announces that Stirling wrote something called Conquistador, which apparently is a pretty hot item, but which I have not read yet. All in all, this author's writing style reminded me a great deal of Larry Niven, and while Niven is great, emulating him in your own book is not. For example, twice in the book Stirling abruptly truncated a characters chain of thought on paper, and immediately had the character thinking along different lines, as something had changed in the story. This is a way of showing surprise and reaction which Niven used quite frequently, especially in Ringworld. Moreover, Stirling once resorted to Niven's leanings towards being flippant in the face of unimaginable power, for example when he had his characters refer to a possible alien intelligence that did the "Change" as "Alien Space Bats." Also, the basic premise of the book reads like a love letter to the SCA and to the Wiccans, much like Fallen Angels was a love letter to Sci-Fi fans. On top of that, once you add in non-working firearms and engines, and the book could very easily have been Lucifer's Hammer, in that it basically was a disaster novel that wrecks cities, nations, and maybe even the whole world. If you decide to read it, you will probably see what I am saying for yourself.

This book's greatest attribute, however, is that it is a suitable addition to the sub-genre of disaster/apocalypse/end-of-the-world sci-fi, which I am a HUGE fan of. Stirling's descriptions of bubonic plague and typhus outbreaks are realistic sounding. He also populated his world with camps of cannibals, called "Eaters," the destruction of which was interestingly gory and bloody. However, Stirling, with quite a heavy hand, overdid the destruction caused initially by the Change. I mean, not every neighborhood and tank farm is going to get impacted by a falling jet. Not every passenger of every car stranded on the highway between cities is going to die of exposure (in the early summer) within two weeks. Not every wacko Idahoan Neo-Nazi is going to descend to the highway from their compounds to become a raider one day after the power goes out. And that's the way the book essentially felt. As fun as it is, unfortunately the novel carves no new swath of its own, or adds anything new to this sub-genre. There apparently are two sequels to this novel already, which may be worth reading, but probably not for more than the cost of a bargain-bin closeout, based on the strength of this novel.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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Comment from GTT

This was my very first review, just after Christmas day, 2006

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