on July 30, 2009
There is an excellent half a story in this book somewhere. The problem is wading through the other half to get there. Our two main protagonist's Mike Havel and Juniper Mackenzie are quite interesting characters. But in some ways that is a bad thing. Why you say, "aren't interesting characters the reason you read a story?" Very true, but with any novel based on fiction there is a suspension of disbelief that an author must ask of his readers. Sometimes credibility is stretched and sometimes it is shattered - much like stepping on a tourist's snow globe of Kooskia, ID.
As a Marine and resident of western Montana I was predisposed to identify with Mike Havel the character, but then I found out that Mike was former Force Recon (Sniper qualified too!), Gulf War veteran, master of the Finnish fighting knife and raised as an Indian tracker/hunter. I am not quite sure if such a person exists in reality but I am willing to go with it if the author doesn't beat me over the head with it multiple times throughout his book.
This compounds with the problem that our protagonist's very survival isn't just a matter of elite breeding and an unlikely intersection of family trees but also they happen upon expert bowyer/fletchers, horse hand/blacksmiths, and SCA guru's not to mention library's containing everything you ever wanted to know about ancient warrior societies, growing crops and mounted combat. Maybe this is necessary for an interesting story, but couldn't they just get lucky killing people instead of getting lucky knowing how to kill people?
There is also the problem with explosives, electricity, and pressurized gases. Every author does some hand waving to sell a story, Stirling backs himself into a corner with his Change and barely goes through the motions to explain it. The problem arises when fire works, hot air balloons work, gunpowder doesn't work, electricity doesn't work, and steam power doesn't work. So, burning coal to produce steam doesn't work in the same way that burning propane heats air and causes that hot air balloon to rise? I think as a reader I would allow Stirling to wave his hands and say this doesn't work, that does work, this doesn't etc. But when this is added to the string of luck of our characters on top of their already .005% of the human population backgrounds it just becomes a tedious exercise.
The final nail in the series' coffin for me was the ludicrous timeline for the fall of civilized man and the "Woah" scary bad people dynamic. First of all it is going to take a whole lot longer than a few months for people to abandon all signs of civilization and start eating each other. Will it happen? Yes most definitely, but not so quickly and certainly not to the degree of rolling around in your own filth and eating other peoples feet that is shown in the book after a month or two. This certainly is a way for Stirling to point at "baaaaaad" people which need to be bumped off in mass, but I reject that killing in any piece of fiction needs to be dumbed down in such a way.
I certainly won't be moving on to the rest of these books and depending on your tastes in fiction if you must read something post-apocalyptic I would suggest Cormac McCarthy's "The Road".
on August 6, 2004
I'm a big fan of novels that take humanity and mix things up by altering the familiar scenario. Say by sending a community back in time with all their technology in tact, but with no access to the resources necessary to sustain that technology.
Well, Stirling has taken that premise and twisted it here. What if our modern day society was suddenly bereft of its technology? Anything powered by electricity, batteries, or gasoline suddenly useless? Gunpowder chemically altered to loose its highly explosive tendencies?
What would society do, without irrigation and machinery to run the massive farms, without refineries, and trucks, and refrigeration?
With six billion people on the planet, the resulting chaos is not at all cheerful. We never actually see the savage toll in a city larger than Portland (and even there not directly), but allusions to what it must be like in New York or Tokyo, and to what happened in St. Louis say plenty.
The story unfolds brilliantly, as people slowly begin to band together, and struggle to survive in this new world. They must learn how to farm, ride horses, make weapons, and then use them. And Stirling does an excellent job portraying the difficulty of each, with a particularly inspired source of metal for swords.
This book is one part nightmare, one part medievalist's fantasy, which makes its villain all the more fitting.
If you're wavering, pick up a copy, it's well worth the read.
on August 9, 2005
I'm a big fan of alternative history-Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South got me interested in the genre. I'd read S.M. Stirling before (Conquistador, The Peshawar Lancers) and really enjoyed him. So when I started his Nantucket series, I was expecting a good read. Which they are, and aren't. The premise of the Nantucket series is that the island of Nantucket is inexplicably hurtled back in time to the Bronze Age. The Islanders must figure out how to survive and interact with this strange new world.
Dies the Fire is a companion novel to the Nantucket series. You needn't have read the trilogy to understand what's going on-it just lets you in on a few characters mentioned in the other books. Dies starts the night of The Event, when Nantucket disappears (tho' these characters don't know that) and suddenly anything remotely electrical stops working. Batteries die, cars won't run, even gunpowder won't explode any more.
The hero, Mike Havel, is a bush pilot flying a rich family to their place in Idaho when their plane just quits mid-air. He manages to bring the plane down in one piece, but the mother is injured pretty badly. After discovering that nothing works, the party sets off in search of help/civilization. They've got two things going for them-Mike is a combat veteran and knows how to survive in the woods, and the youngest daughter, Astrid, is a fantasy-loving Tolkien freak who has her own extremely well-made bow and arrows, and knows how to use them.
Meanwhile, in Corvallis, Oregon, Juniper MacKenzie, a folk-singer/Wiccan priestess is performing in a tavern when there is a blinding light, and then all is dark. Except for the fires flaming out of control from a 747 that crashed in the middle of town. Juniper, her deaf daughter Eilir, and their friend Dennis realize something very wrong has happened, and head for the hills, literally.
The rest of the book is how the two groups grow in size, try to avoid plague, cannibals, and mad warlords, and eventually come together. A pretty good tale of survival.
But while the plot is sound, the whole book felt strained. One of an author's goals should be for the reader to connect with his or her characters. And I just couldn't. I cared very little for what happened to Mike, Juniper, or any of the numerous supporting cast. I think the only one I really felt anything for was Astrid, and that's mainly because I'm a Tolkien freak too.
Also, I understand that, in a post-apocalyptic world such as this, life is going to be mean, nasty, brutish, and short. But I don't need explicit descriptions of this every other chapter (sometimes every chapter). Most of the people who die (and trust me, a lot of people die), do so in extremely horrific ways, which the author seems to spend entirely too much time describing to the reader. Between the cannibals and sadistic biker (bicycles, not motorcycles) gangs, there's a lot of raping, blood, and body parts. And chalk it up to me being a new mother, but I got awfully tired of hearing about children being killed or dying in other ways. Maybe once, ok. Too often, and I started just skipping whole sections of chapters. I don't read horror novels for a reason.
Finally, there's the whole Wiccan storyline, which after a while started to sound more like proselytizing than part of the story. All the good guys are either agnostic/atheistic or pagan, the Christians are all bigots, or lapsed. Even the sole Buddhist ends up joining Juniper's coven. As for the epilogue, that just got a little too out-there, causing me to ask myself, "Is this book about an alternative history, or swords-and-sorcery fantasy?"
In the end, I'm not sure I can recommend this book. It left a rather sour taste in my mouth and mind. The Peshawar Lancers, sure (at least, I don't remember it being this gruesome), even Conquistador.
But let Dies the Fire die out on the bookshelf.
on September 24, 2009
You have probably read the character synopsis and storyline already, so I will save you that, my little rant focuses on the "Pfffftt" moments in the story which, sadly, are myriad.
This was easily one of the worst post-apocalypse books I have ever read in that the necessities for survival were
made conveniently available, so much so that you have to wonder how the author managed to keep the good guys from discovering alien technology that could render them invisible or something.
Where do I start?
Heroine Juniper and her merry band make it to her mountain hideaway where they discover that their closest neighbors are not only conveniently dead (no difficult problems about sharing their stuff) but left behind a house jammed to the rafters with everything from medicine to food to blankets. The barn is stocked with seed potatoes and hay (because surprise, the seed tater delivery guy was there the day of The Change), there are chickens and cows for meat and milk, and the deceased former owners even managed to make sure the pasture gates were closed so the critters couldn't wander away. Hooray! Bonus: Juniper's own nearby cabin can't be seen from the road and is conveniently located near a clear stream and wonderfully poetic meadows.
As for everything else needed to make make it in this exciting new world, have no fear, wonderful coincidence and a generous author will provide.
The party will need trained horses for transport and armored cavalry: Up walks Bob, the expert horse wrangler. I know I know, this isn't horse country so what am I doing here.
The horses and commune defenders need a blacksmith: Hi there, I'm Jim the real estate guy whose side hobby just happens to be blacksmithing, and yes, I can whip together a full suit of chainmail in about two days and a perfectly balanced morningstar in one.
The brave defenders will require non-gunpowder weaponry: Good morning everyone, I'm Tom, I was an interpretive dancer before The Change but luckily I dabbled in the art of creating professional-grade longbows by hand using all natural materials.
The party needs ammo for Tom's bows? No problem: Hey hey hey, Susan here, I'm a fantastic cook, former stay at
home mom AND I know the arcane art of fletching arrows using the feathers from local blue-breasted sparrows.
All of these historical artists just happened to be wandering around in the remote mountains and by sheer luck they ran into kindly Juniper. Why they didn't starve or freeze to death like everyone else, or get murdered by Christian survivalists found elsewhere in the book is never quite explained, pure good fortune apparently.
It doesn't end there though, because the brave Wiccan commune also has a mobile library complete with tomes on medieval war strategies. Pretty lucky that someone skipped the canned food and candles as they ran from the house to escape catastrophe, and instead grabbed the all-important "Janes Complete Guide to 14th Century Armored Cavalry Tactics". Yeah yeah, I know you kids are hungry, so here, satisfy yourself by reading about how to organize a proper wedge formation.
At this point in the tale I wouldn't have been surprised if Juniper & Co. broke into a neighboring barn and
stumbled upon a working trebuchet that the missing farmer was building just for the heck of it. Seriously, what are the odds that the perfect medieval skill sets are going to be found in a dozen people thrown together at random?
So the stage is set, the survivors have food, skills and shelter; clean water, livestock and a woman wonderfully
prepared to thrive as a combat leader after having lived her entire life as a timid, anonymous, gypsy folk singer.
Opposing them are former RenFair reenactors with stunningly murderous predilections, leading an army of Crips and biker outlaws, as if the Hell's Angels would willingly take orders from self-styled "Sigurd Redhand the Dragon Slayer" aka Howie the dentist. Then again maybe hard core gang-bangers really do have deep seated fears of slightly built weekend warriors wearing homemade leather jerkins and tin helmets too big for their heads.
The laugh out loud quality of the entire book can be summed up by referencing one early exchange between the hero, former Recon Marine Mike, and Eric the teenage boy warrior wanna-be. Mike makes himself a homemade spear using a butcher knife and a long stick, causing Eric to opine that it resembles a Naginata. Mike agrees and innocently asks Eric if he has ever trained with such a weapon, to which Eric replies....wait for it...wait for iiiiiiitt..."Just a few times".
WHAAAAAAATTT? This teenager from Portland just happens to have trained in the use of a Naginata? Not a common spear, not a sharp stick that he found in the woods while camping, a Naginata. Of course Eric doesn't have any other weapons training or martial arts skills, just some background in the use of an ancient Japanese halberd....and he comes from Scandinavian stock. I laughed so hard when I read that part I thought I would choke; I think the author has spent one too many Saturdays flailing around the backyard with a dull-edged, knockoff Katana while yelling "Kiii yaaaaaa!".
So...if you pine for the good ol' days of nerding around in your geek friends basement on Friday night, busy trying to hack your way through the next level of D&D while trying to convince yourself that girls aren't really all that important anyway, this book is for you. It's definitely a goofball's dream world, complete with the former jocks getting one-upped by the vengeful nerds, payback for all those high school wedgies. The only thing missing in this sad fantasy world is an army of orcs and a giant spider. Oh well, maybe in the next series. If you want something that isn't 500 pages of Wiccan propaganda and juvenile ponderings of how awesome things would be if only we could all walk around in chainmail and bearskin capes while carrying a rune inscribed broadsword, then you might want to look elsewhere.
P.S. Want a good read about average people dealing with the collapse of civilization, including characters that don't desire to build their own Helm's Deep one week after the fall? Try "Summer of the Apocalypse", a great book that won't have you saying "Cooooommee Ooooonnnnnne" every few pages.
on February 4, 2006
In this novel, the world Changes, with a capital C, literally in a flash, and the characters survive by going medieval. Although Stirling's workmanlike prose is no pleasure to read for its own sake, his attention to detail is painstaking and often edifying, and his premise holds the possibility of an engrossing adventure. Sadly, a few overarching flaws unsuspend my disbelief.
One nagging detail is Stirling's depiction of Juniper, the Wiccan point-of-view character. You know how you can forget a friend's religion for days or weeks at a time, until something suddenly reminds you of it? Stirling never lets us forget Juniper's religion for even half a page. He litters her every thought and utterance with "blessed be" and "by the Cosmic Sphincter" and so on. It's reminiscent of children's books by Richard Scarry, where you know you're in France because all the animals are wearing berets and saying "ooh la la" and running around the Eiffel Tower. Same with every major character's ethnicity. Instead of just showing us what Mike Havel is like, Stirling constantly reminds us that Mike is of Finnish descent. In real life, one might ask who gives a damn. In fiction, it comes across as a substitute for characterization.
Still, I don't read novels like this for the author's mastery of form, and so I'm willing to overlook some awkwardness. What I can't overlook is the incredible way the police and military simply evaporate after the Change. The last we see of the police as a social institution is some poor, clueless cop getting a beatdown from rioters in the first minutes after the Change. "Click click, oh no, my gun doesn't work! What ever shall I do?" That's pretty much it for the police, who are never mentioned again, except for a few perfunctory sheriff types who show up later, and this is because (if I follow the logic) police use firearms, and firearms no longer work. I have to wonder if Stirling ever met a cop, much less asked one what he'd do in case of, oh, I don't know, an emergency. Maybe some of them would think to rendezvous at, say, police headquarters. Maybe they would seek to control the rioters not with firearms, but-- and this is sheer speculation on my part-- with riot control tactics and materiel.
For that matter, since firearms no longer work, who in America might have things like helmets, body armor, shields, hand weapons, and even horses lying around? And who might be trained in the coordinated use of these things against superior numbers? I would say the police. Stirling would say Wiccans and the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Please. Cops have heard of weapons other than firearms. I'm sure they're on speaking terms with clubs, boot knives, machetes, and hatchets. I'll bet not a few of them have crossbows lying around the house. And it's not like they'd have to become hardened to full-contact mayhem. They're already into it.
It takes Stirling several hundred pages to get to homemade Napalm. I thought of it the first time Stirling showed some SCA clown ("the Protector") mustering armored footmen at a city building. The cops would be sure to think of Napalm, too, and they wouldn't be trying to arrest these guys. Martial law would be declared, and the Protector's men would be considered traitors to the US government (a concept that I think would survive a mere communications outage, at least in the minds of cops). I'm afraid it'd be summary justice in the field for the Protector, and strangulation in the cradle for his nascent army.
And where's the National Guard? Or any other established military force, for that matter? Oh, that's right-- they have firearms and radios, so when those cease to function, the armed forces cease to exist. So, too, does any pre-existing concept of nation or state. If something like this happened in my neighborhood, the first thing I'd grab is a copy of the Constitution and an American flag. I'd march under that and preach to recruits about how we're all Americans and we must preserve the Union and blah blah blah. Not one person in Stirling's world thinks of this. Instead they form groovy new cave bear clans and whip up banners and heraldry for them.
But I guess swallowing this logic is the only way to turn today's American West into feudal Britain.
Even having swallowed this logic, I wonder if the American West would look like feudal Britain. Britain in the Middle Ages was a crowded little island. The post-Change American West is a vast expanse of prairie and mountains, sparsely populated. Would armored heavy footmen be effective in such a place? Stirling correctly shows how mounted archers make short work of even armored footmen, and how swiftness and stamina are the deciding factors in such an engagement, and how armored riders negatively affect both. So I wonder if a successful military power in the post-Change West would resemble the Sioux nations more than the feudal monarchies of Europe. Indeed, it took the advent of the railroad and the repeating rifle to displace the Plains Indians. Why should Stirling's West be so different?
But that's a minor point compared to the instant disappearance of existing armed authority and the perpetually annoying characterization of Juniper. Strangely, I enjoyed the book more than this review might imply-I guess I'm a sucker for guys whacking each other with swords, and Stirling renders that element with precision and authority. But considering the parts that bugged me, I can't give it more than a mediocre rating.
on October 13, 2008
I don't believe in destroying books. When I'm finished with a book I normally give it away unless it was so good that I want to hang on to it. Alas, "Dies the Fire" is sitting in my garbage can, 200 pages in. I've never done that before, but I can't think of a more fitting place for this piece of trash.
Other people have spoken about the sheer implausibility of the entire premise. Deus Ex Machina doesn't even begin to describe the chain of unlikely circumstance and happenstance which all conspire to bring Stirling's characters into a position where they're suddenly useful.
See, I've met a lot of people in my life who are eerily similar to the characters presented in this book. I've known people who, in 2008, still continue to bang away at making 'battle-ready' swords, people who practice Wicca and claim to be witches, people who try to show off their mastery of Gaelic at every chance they can get, I've been to Rennaisance Faires and marveled at the people who seem to take it all just a little bit -too- seriously...
The major thing that this book manages to completely ignore is that the rest of the American population, the 99.9% of us who don't cry out for people to pay attention to us by acting like an anachronism, would not simply roll over and die and allow the psuedo-feudalism to return to the countryside after two short weeks.
There's a memorable scene a quarter of the way through the book where a history professor - yes, a history professor -, dressed in scale armor and toting a shield demonstrates his fitness to rule over all of the gang bangers, mafioso and other unsorted criminal element of Portland, OR by taking on four fully grown men - two policemen and two U.S. soldiers - in hand to hand combat. This scene is a turning point for the whole novel, but not in any literary sense. It's the scene where the reader realizes that Sirling is not trying to carry on the legacy of extrapolative end-of-the-world scenarios in the tradition of Larry Niven's "Lucifer's Hammer" and David Brin's "The Postman" (sidenote: if you're looking for great post-apocalyptic tales, pick those up before you bother with this one), but rather desperately trying to convince himself and anyone that will listen that beating your friends up with plastic foam swords on alternate weekends is going to prepare you to kill trained, professional combatants and rule the world when the lights go out.
Your odds are even better if you speak some Gaelic and make sure everyone you speak with knows you're a Wiccan pagan witch. It's always a teeth-grating experience for me when characters in books speak foreign languages and then immediately offer the translations in the same breath. Main character Juniper Mackinzie does this with alarming frequency in "Dies the Light", to the point where the average redneck denizen of upper Oregon (you know, the rough, outdoorsy people conditioned by a life of labor who are used to doing things like -hunting with bows- that the author conveniently forgets or has us assume have died in a dramatic turn of stupidity as soon the power went out) would slap her and remind her that it's more effective to communicate with people if you just say what you mean and get it done with. Anyone as desperate for attention as Juniper presents herself to be doesn't last long in a leadership role, yet Stirling sets her up as not only High Priestess of her Wiccan coven, but the leader of a prosperous and powerful commune whom everyone loves, reveres and practically worships because, get this, she knows how to sing. Brittney Spears knows how to sing too, and she's not allowed to be in charge of her own family much less anyone else's.
Things just line up in ways that are harder to swallow than broken glass in this novel. From the sheer happy happenstance of finding an Englishman adventurer stuck in a tree who just so happens to know how to make longbows, to the three missing members of Juniper's coven just so happening to be the captives of a band of cannibals they encounter (hooray, a joyous reunion and foreshadowing avenged!), everyone who makes an appearance seems to be gifted with some incredibly rare and, it's worth nothing, prior to the Change totally useless and self-indulgent skill which makes them invaluable to the new medieval society and technology base that springs up overnight. The trouble stems from the fact that Stirling edges dangerously close to attributing it all to magic but never fully commits. If it were magic, if it were presented from the start and explained and accepted as magic, the whole book would have been easier to read. It wouldn't have made the characters any less irritating or any less annoying as their real-life analogues, it wouldn't have made the dialogue any less stilted or queerly expositional (at one point, a 14 year old girl gushes, at great length, about the composition and manufacture of her bow in a conspicuously un-teenage-girl-like way, made all the more conspicuous by the fact that her bow was made by the same bowyers that the author thanks in his acknowledgements - kindly leave the advertisments out of your narrative, Mr. Stirling), but it at least would have made the setting bearable. I've read Tolkien, I've read George R.R. Martin, I've read Moorcock - I have no problem with flying castles, invisibility rings and enchanted, soul-sucking swords. I do have an issue with mindless, ego-stroking tripe however, and this book firmly rates as such.
Never have I been more appalled by an author's blatant efforts and making himself and his friends appear cool through dogged artifice and a precarious house-of-cards scenario carefully constructed to put them in the only position where they'd, at long last, be as superior to everyone else as they richly believe they should be.
If you're thinking about reading this book, try these instead:
"The Postman" - David Brin
"Lucifer's Hammer" - Larry Niven
"World War Z" - Max Brooks
Stirling devised an ingenious "sequel" to his Nantucket trilogy. In the latter, readers must have seethed with frustration at how limited the Americans were in their capabilities. Limited by their small numbers and the sheer complexity of 20th century society, they had to slip back to level of the early Industrial Revolution. But the trilogy shows them clambering back up the ladder of industrial progress. How some readers must have wondered - what if the Nantuckers had several thousand more Americans with them, or many more supplies and equipment. The road back would surely have been easier.
Here this book starts off a new trilogy, in the world left behind. Some 6 billion people on it. He puts a twist here. The modern chemistry is permanently squelched. People have to fall back centuries. So while there is this resemblence to the other trilogy, here the fall seems irredeemable. All the panoply of people and hardware, with most of the latter now junk. Very ironic.
The book is a darker vision than the Nantucket scenario. While the ending might be positive, the overall ambience seems negative. It invokes comparison to the dystopic Draka series, that made Stirling famous amongst science fiction fans.
on June 13, 2013
I'm a big fan of Alternate History, and of S.M. Stirling's other work. I can honestly say that Dies the Fire, and the accompanying two sequels, are three of my favorite fiction novels.
I won't go over the premise; you can read that from the other reviews. It's an Alien Space Bats novel (it's even lampshaded). Alien Space Bats premises don't have to make sense, but they do have to be internally consistent. In this case, it is, at least if you take the thermo and electricity separately. Simply put, the Change places an arbitrary cap on the amount of power that is output from gaseous PV-work above a certain threshold pressure. At the microscale this implies that primers and other shock-sensitive materials no longer work, at the macroscale it means the steam engine mentioned later in the book doesn't work, nor do other IC engines. To his credit, Stirling even mentions later in the series that atmospheric engines (think a Watt or Newcomen engine) still work, putting a good handle on even where the arbitrary limit is. As for the electricity, well, I won't comment on it because I don't have the background on it, but suffice to say that as far as the thermo goes, things are OK. I mean, seriously, the most popular negative review up here complains that engines don't work but that a hot air balloon does? Buoyancy and thermal expansion are both different principles from PV work.
So, on to the actual book. I've mentioned before that S.M. Stirling is one of my favorite authors, and like his buddy Harry Turtledove, he has his good and not-so-good sides that are both on display in this novel.
The good: a very close attention to detail, decent dialogue, and a phenomenal amount of research that went into the this novel. For the last, I don't just mean geography and the like. This guy spent a serious amount of time researching reconstruction western martial arts (as the somewhat anachronistic shout-out to HACA/ARMA proves, even though in later books he implausibly includes Japanese fencing for the hell of it). In terms of writing, the quality is middling until you get to places where Stirling wants you to take in the setting, particularly in the battle scenes or in describing fortifications. In that sense, he writes like the typical person who gets into medieval history by learning about warfare. It's good if you think like that or like history for that reason (I do, among many others) but it's not for everyone.
Additionally, Stirling is a well-known alternate history writer, and he'd be a very poor one if he weren't able to convincingly trace the development of the three very different societies that arise in this book. In fact, this is one of the major themes of the series: how cultures mix and match, how ethnogenesis occurs, and how founders can affect the directions of their societies. If I were to point out one theme that was seamlessly integrated into the narrative, this would be it. The rest of the world... well, I'm going to have to disagree with Craig Clark about the speed of social collapse. I actually think that this was quite well done.
Now, for the not-so-good. S.M. Stirling has several habits that are vividly on display.
First, all of his characters are flamboyantly ethnic. There's quarter-Obijwa half-Finn protagonist. There's the other half-Irish half-Scots-Irish, speak-with-a-brogue protagonist. There's the family of Swedes and a Boston Brahmin. The rural Texan horsemaster and his Tejano wife. The German-Australian groundskeeper with a penchant for polka. I could go on, but you get the idea. S.M. Stirling has a thing for accents and for British, Native American, Celtic, and Scandanavian cultures in particular, and loves to incorporate that into everything he writes. He sprinkles random words of Swedish, Finnish, and most annoyingly frequently, Irish Gaelic all through the novel, just for the hell of it. It gets annoying after a while.
Another aspect of S.M. Stirling's writing that I've sometimes found difficult to believe are his superhero characters, on display in every novel from Conquistador to The Peshawar Lancers. Dies the Fire is no different. Mike Havel is basically He-man. Pam Arnstein is the implausible swordmistress. Astrid Larsson is the hyper-competent, convenient LARP nerd. Will Hutton is the Horse Whisperer who dabbled in being a Magyar. Sam Aylward is Robin Hood. There are also believable characters - the middle-aged mechanical engineer, the ex-hippie organic restaurantiers... Stirling can afford to make a story without one or more of the implausible heroes. Instead he takes the easy way out and drops the necessary skills in conveniently.
There are also other tics that pop up in fits of effusive logorrhea: excessive attention to meals is one of them, for example, but in this book at least (and for the first three books of the Emberverse series) it's much better than what George R.R. Martin regularly subjects us to. I appreciate the lack of dog sausage, too.
To be honest, though, the above is stuff you can stomach if you're not looking for the next great American novel. None of it is a dealbreaker for me, at least, but it is for some people.
There is only one thing that I found really annoying about this novel, and for that matter the entire Emberverse series, and that is the way Neopaganism is used. So, OK, Juniper Mackenzie is a Wiccan. I get it, and I also get that it's at plausible that Wiccans might be better prepared for The Change, and that in general people will become more religious during times of adversity. But... there's no reason to punch us in the face with it all the time. It's not that I mind viewing the world from a different religious viewpoint, it's that better than a third of Juniper Mackenzie's POV passages include highly detailed descriptions of neopagan religious rites. In contrast, you never see the strongly Christian characters pray, or any other religion on display for that matter. It's a very clear case of the author's research run amok, and a desire to see it all included placed above the better interest of the narrative. Especially in later books the Wiccanism just goes nuts, and to be honest on my rereadings I've found myself skipping the passages to get to the bits I know are better.
At the beginning of this review, I said that the first three books of the Emberverse series are among my favorites. I can honestly still say that; among other things, they're what got me into historical european martial arts, have provided me with many a night of fun thought exercises, and are solid and well constructed novels. But obviously I can appreciate the flaws of Dies of the Fire as well. Love it or hate it - this is S.M. Stirling at his best and worst.
on January 28, 2015
1 star for the whole series. First book could be maybe 2 1/2 stars. But each book slowly erodes that rating by a 1/2 star with each one.
I am tired. Which is good. Because these books do not deserve much energy in their reviews. Certainly not anymore than Stirling puts into them.
There are so many well done reviews in the 1 star range I won't even try to compete! But here are some of my takes on the books.
I have read book series that I had to fight to put down. This slowly grew into a weight lifting work out forcing myself to keep from putting the book down. I only kept at it because all my other others are between books and I HOPE that when I find a series with several books for me to burn through I will find it a good series. NOT so!
This author/bureaucrat? loves details. Loves the details that no one cares about more than the ones people expect to be extrapolated upon.
He loves paragraphs of descriptions about meaningless stuff. He loves bringing those same boring details back to life again and again in each book. Each book he needs to expound upon how Bob originally met Steve. Or how his father met Harry. Or how Harry... It just goes on and on.
This guy will write pages about a guy and his horse. His horse his horse and his horse. When the horse is killed in battle. Bummer, burn it, tear, next!
There are so many pages in this series that I soon just started skipping a head. It is like an NBA season or a soap opera. You can skip a months worth of games or shows, and come back and nothing much has changes. Same here. Skip a page, a few pages, many pages, and you did not miss out on much except the forced details about stone walls, chambers, tables, Damascus steel, how to string and unstring a bow, how to mount a horse or dismount, the endless cotehardie, kilts, etc.
This writer is clearly writing for those with alzheimers. He must be!
This could be an excerpt from his book:
Wearing a kilt, Bob was on the way to town to buy something very important to save nearly everyone lives and he barely had enough money to get it. Hopefully nothing would go wrong. The kilt. The kilt was larger than most. Most people wore smaller kilts. But not Bob. Also, most wore Green. Or spotted green. Or spots with green. Or lighter green. Sometimes a darker green. Some even wore kilts with no green! "Ah, if only my kilt were more green like others, or perhaps less green like others, or even with out green like some." Green was the color of leaves in the spring and summer. Sometimes into fall as pine many pine tree needles remained green all year. This was a place where trees had a lot of green. And a lot of green leaves. "Green was the color of my Da's scarf. I wonder if it was green because of the green leaves? This place does have a lot of green leave. Though, I hear many places do not have so much green leave." This was a dangerous road. Full of bandits. "I wonder how many kinds of Green the bandits wear? Do they change the color with the seasons? Or are they from some place else, with fewer green leaves. Green is probably a pretty common summer color, but I hear that is not true every where. I hear the desert does not have as much green. My Da once went to the desert. It was a dangerous trip and he nearly died a million times. He told me how much green there was not there. Poor people, with out much green. It must be hard for them? I could not imagine so little green. They had brown. Da said many shades of brown....
This author will spend 3 chapters leading up to the battle. Mostly filled with what hand someone has a sword in, why, what they ate, what they called what they ate, what the ate was made of, why they did not like what they ate, but how what they ate was better than another groups for that that group ate. And then the monolithic battle ends with a Sit Down that no one disputes, miles and miles of combat not envisioned, and and... the battle is over.
If you want to read something much better, here are some infinitely better choices, in pretty good order of very best to best:
Robert Jordan - Wheel of Time series
David Webber - Honer Harrington series
Robbin Hobb - Assassin series, Live Ship Trader series
EE Knight - Vampire Earth
Taylor Anderson - Destroyermen series
Jack Campbell - Lost Fleet series
Collen McCullough - Grass Crown and maybe more
John Ringo - Live Free or Die series, Black Tide Rising series, not as good is Empire Man series with Webber...
Jennifer Robberson - Cheysuli series
Raymond Feist - Magician Apprentice series and more
Elizabeth Moon - Vatta series
Eric Flint - 1634 series, but not Ram Rebellion and such written by that so boring and drawn out lady writer.
Avoid SM Stirling.
Run from Gini Koch!
That is all the time and effort I desire to put into this review. If you hated it, you have a good idea of what the book will bring to you. If you liked it you probably already read the book and I caused you another bout of Stirling ad nausea PTSD.
on August 3, 2006
A bizarre cosmic event has rendered every modern bit of technology and even certain laws in physics inoperable. Electricity is gone, gunpowder and other explosives stop working, and even steam power doesn't seem to work, forcing the entire world back into the dark ages in one single instant.
Story primary focuses on two protagonists, Jupiter Mackenzie, a folk singer in Corvallis, and Mike Havel, a bush pilot in Idaho. In the shadow of massive anarchy and depleted resources both of our heroes form their own bands to protect selves and others. Jupiter, a starch Wiccan, creates a group modeled after pagan Celtic clans, called Clan Mackenzie and Mike creates a large military type group of nomads called the Bearkillers after a near disastrous encounter with an angry grizzly bear.
Both these groups come to the quick realization that things are no longer as they where and must adapt to survive, Mackenzie sets up shop with her daughter and Wicca coven at her uncle's estate in the western Cascade foot hills, turning the area into a middle age fortress and farming community. Likewise Havel has crashed landed in western Idaho with a family of archers, he decided that the best place for them to go is, taa-daa, the Willamette Valley in Western Oregon. Mike and his merry group must trek through the Rocky Mountain foothills, rough it through Eastern Oregon(which is rocky desert) and over the cascades.
While the MacKenzies and the Bearkillers try to develop ways of survival in a land that no longer has refrigerators or mass transit, not to mention a land that is now overrun with bandits and cannibals, a fellow called Norman Arminger, a former Jesuit, anthropologist, mid evil historian, and a mid evil society member, manages to single handily take over the entire Portland Metro area in only a few weeks and in a few months, conquers most of Western Washington. With that area under his thump he turns his eyes to the Willamette Valley, an eighty mile stretch of land that is arguably the most perfect agriculture area in the country.
I stumbled across Dies the Fire by accident while at the library when it first came out. "Hey isn't that Portland on the cover", I read the inside jacket and was enthralled by the concept of absolutely everything invented since the middle ages going flat for absolutely no reason at all. That idea might seem a little far fetch, but hey it's fantasy, in fantasy anything goes. Best of all, 95% of it takes place in Oregon.
Being a native Oregonian it slightly irks me to see some of the inaccuracies in Stirlings description of the Oregon landscape and places, he describes OSU as "mostly grass and trees" Stirling felt out the fact that Oregon State University is also a collection of large brick and stucco buildings, he also descries Corvallis as being made up of lots of Victorian homes and buildings, when in real life Corvallis is made up of buildings and homes from the 1920s. But that's okay, he lives in New Mexico and geographical research is not an easy thing.
What really didn't irk me but did irk a lot of others where some of the characterization in relation with the setting. People with certain skills just happen to be in the right spot when trouble starts. A knife fighter, a vet, a horse trainer, a fencing instructor, etc. Many few this as incredibly unrealistic, however most of these people do take the Pacific North West's demographics into account.
Oregon's population is around three million people speared out over an area of almost a hundred thousand square miles. Oregon has a mix of dense urban areas in the Willamette Valley and large rural areas everywhere else, so even as improbable as it sounds there is a significant chance that one could run into someone that dose have a skill needed to survive in a world turn upside down.
P.S.--Might make a good video game.