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Book Review – “Dies the Fire” by S.M. Stirling

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The Larssons’ youngest had a cat carrier on her lap; the beast’s bulging yellow eyes shone through the bars, radiating despair and outrage. It wasn’t taking the trip well; cats seldom did, being furry little Republicans with an in-built aversion to change.

– “Dies the Fire” by S.M. Stirling

For the most part, I’ve been reading non-fiction books for the last four years or so because, with the exception of the Harry Potter series, I just wasn’t interested in what was out there.  A few weeks ago, I think it was on a Pagan blog over at Patheos, I saw a recommendation for “Dies the Fire” by S.M. Stirling.  Being in a bit of a dry spell with the books on my nightstand (not interested, but not ready to give up on them yet), I decided to give it a try.

Are you familiar with the new television show on NBC called “Revolution?”  It’s kind of like that, but “Dies the Fire” came first.

Imagine that you’re minding your own business, going about your life as usual, and the power goes out.  You might suspect that it’s temporary, except that your car won’t start, guns don’t work, and planes are falling from the sky.  Chaos breaks out.  What do you do?  Is it temporary?  Will any of it ever work again?  How will you eat?  Get clean water?  Stay healthy?  Who’s going to stop thieves?  Keep civilization working?  In a nutshell, that’s what “Dies the Fire” is all about.

I’ve made it through the first two books and am about three-quarters of the way through the third book.  While I like the series and plan to read all the way through, I do have a few reservations about recommending it to others:

I found the first book the hardest one to get through, mainly because it felt like I had to suspend too much of reality.  Our bodies work on electrical impulses so why is it that humans are still living, breathing, moving, but the electricity does not work?  How exactly are we to believe that one can light a fire to stay warm and cook food, but gunpowder just sizzles without exploding?  Oh, and about steam.  How exactly is it that they can boil water and have it turn to water vapor, but can’t power a locomotive with it?  In the end I just had to accept it as a plot device.  It was a way of taking technology away and then seeing what would happen.

The main characters are all incredibly lucky.  They just happen upon a person who can make a bow.  They stumble upon someone who used to be involved in reenacting and is a master with a sword.  The elderly Mormon couple with diabetes dies, but before the husband passes away, and while he’s stumbling along breathing his last few breaths, he has the presence of mind to take care of the animals and write notes about all the food that’s down in the cellar.  Oh, and don’t forget the seed potato load that, wonder of all wonders, happens to be sitting out back.

Stirling seems to acknowledge this slight problem as there are many times that the characters themselves talk about the luck that they have had.  On the one hand, I’m willing to accept this because what is life but a string of luck (good or bad)?  Those that survive and do well seem to get all the breaks.  I get that, but about half way through the first book I had to put it down and leave it be because…come on!

Why go straight from civilization to it’s broken to the castles and knights, lords and ladies?  “Revolution” has it’s own issues (you can turn the power on and off selectively with this magic pendant?), but at least in its story line the issue of who is in control falls to the militia.  This seems much more likely to happen than the second coming of the Middle Ages or as the graffiti in Corvallis from book three puts it, “Help, I’ve fallen into the RenFair!”

None of these issues were enough to disqualify the series for me and it’s entirely possible that you might read through the book and never encounter the same feelings of frustration that I did.  For the record, though, even if you were to experience them, they become a great deal less cumbersome as the books go on.  Starting with the third book these issues become sort of beside the point.

As for what I love the most about the books?  Aside from the quote at the top of this post, it’s that one of the main characters happens to be a Wiccan and it was a breath of fresh air.  Being (reasonably) neo-pagan, it was thrilling to finally (!) read a book that doesn’t assume that we’re all Christians, that every one we know is a Christian, and that darn it we’re a Christian nation!

This year, of all years, is just the year for such a book.

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