Friday, January 15, 2010

Dies the Fire, S. M. Stirling

Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling, is the first book in a spinoff series from Stirling's Nantucket series, in which the island of Nantucket is transported back in time to the Bronze Age. However, Stirling makes a vast departure from the former series, starting this, the Emberverse series, in modern-day Idaho and Oregon with a (suspected) worldwide apocalyptic event: the failure of all electronic, steam engine, gun, internal combustion, and ordnance technology.

The story is two-pronged, primarily, focusing on two benevolent groups of survivors: the Bearkillers and the Clan Mackenzie. The Bearkillers, led by Mike Havel, are working their way west from an airplane crash site toward the Larssons' summer home and land, while the Mackenzies have settled in her family's cabin and land in Oregon. These two groups are mostly independent of each other for the majority of the novel, even though they have a common threat: the Portland Protection Agency, led by a cruel warlord who is taking advantage of the chaos to carve out as much of a claim as he can in post-apocalyptic United States.

Far and above all attributes of the novel, Stirling's plot is his strength. The plot is a long-term one, with chapters sometimes separated by weeks, sometimes by months. This comes across fine since the main promise to the reader is that Stirling will show how these survivors are coming along throughout the year after the Change (apocalypse). The characters are learning to survive with the remnants of civilization and their own ingenuity and pre-Change skills, and the author is good at making those strides in survival an interesting journey. He has enough of the starkness for a post-apocalyptic novel while still offering the faint glimmer of hope for humanity. Stirling also delivers on a dynamo triple-climax with multiple events happening one after another, cementing the path the series will take in the books to come: the war against the dastardly Protector in Portland. His battle scenes were riveting, and Stirling knows his stuff when it comes to strategy, improvised weaponry, and other aspects of warfare. Kudos for that.

The author makes it very clear that organized religion (especially branches of Christianity as we know it) is not welcome in his post-apocalyptic world. I was saddened that this agenda creeped in (and it was obviously written in as an agenda item--not too subtle satire as has been successfully done in other books). And I'm not referring to the Reverend Dixon satire. That was a actually tasteful archetype of the small-town preacher who isn't very tolerant of those out of the social other.

Character interaction came across as stilted often--in part because of dialogue and in part because of forced (and rather abrupt) situations hoisted upon characters. Characters would often, for example, use really heavy dialogue that sounded more like written language than spoken language. Dialogue was overly used as exposition (a la Crichton) instead of a natural tool to build relationships and expand the story. This was especially done with the Mackenzie clan and their Gaelic/Wiccan background. In the attempt to make each character unique, the phrases each character used became over the top--drawing attention to themselves because they weren't natural idioms or expressions people would use. And for hoisting situations on people, the male-female "romantic" interactions consisted of two people getting involved intimately before even really knowing each other. Sort of a "me man--you woman" caveman mentality. At the very best of times there is an inkling of true relationships between people, but that inkling dims quickly.

I very much like the idea that Stirling has: that without key technologies, humankind would of necessity have to revert to medieval systems in order to survive. However, in a lot of ways, the author tries to shove (with a sledgehammer) a square block into a round hole in ways that make the story less credible and that make it feel much less like your typical post-apocalyptic realist novel. At every turn, the characters turn to medieval tools, practices, and pop-culture references to survive. This trend coincides with the unrealistic convenience of randomly finding people with medieval skill sets. For example, Astrid Larsson, one of the minor characters in the Bearkillers group, happens to be a Tolkien nut and has practiced archery her whole life. Astrid's dad happens to be an engineer and just happens to know how to build a trebuchet. The Huttons, another major family in the group, happen to be horse wranglers and have blacksmithing skills. They happen to run into Pam Arnstein, sword master. Smith and Aylward, both expert bowyers. The Protector--a former feudal system professor gone megalomaniac. The list goes on. Stirling forces the survivors of this apocalypse into a medieval mold without allowing things to play out more naturally, where survivors would look to different models of living instead of only medieval feudal systems. I would have liked to see normal run-of-the-mill people trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world instead of making it a survival club for Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts and filk singers only.

Back to Stirling's strengths. If you want a solid plot-based post-apocalyptic novel and don't care about a relatively consecutive timeline or natural dialogue and character development, then you will probably enjoy this novel. If you tend more toward focusing on characters, then this might not be the story for you. Dies the Fire has a lot of big ideas with a riveting survivalist plot to back them up and has a lot of intense moments. If you want the big ideas and the character development, check out The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (now a motion picture). But bear in mind that The Road doesn't have anything near the plot as Dies the Fire. It's just plain, simple survival without one single Wiccan or medieval warrior or trebuchet.

Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling. ROC. 2004. 574 pp. $7.99 (PB).

The Emberverse Series:

1. Dies the Fire
2. The Protector's War
3. A Meeting at Corvallis
(the subsequent books coming 22 years after the Change)
4. The Sunrise Lands
5. The Scourge of God
6. The Sword of the Lady
7. The High King of Montival (coming 2010)


  1. Character development is a big must for me! Sounds like I'll have to pass on this one. Thanks for the review, Kirk.

  2. Yeah, you won't be missing much, Deb. It was one of those where I had to force myself to keep reading. I don't think I'll read the second book in the series.

  3. Mmmmm...Sounds a bit heavy. I don't know if I can handle it in the middle of January. Maybe in June when the sun is shining every day and I have plenty of chances of getting to the lake...Lake Tahoe, that is.