Dies the Fire is an intelligent, meticulously crafted, but overlong and sometimes pokey end-of-the-world epic that unfolds in the same setting as Steve Stirling's 1998 hit Island in the Sea of Time. You might have thought the post-apocalyptic novel died like the dodo when the Cold War fizzled out, but Stirling puts paid to those preconceptions with this book. Though his apocalyptic event isn't nuclear war (it is in fact a global side effect of the event that caused the island of Nantucket to be shot back to the 13th century BCE in Sea of Time), Dies the Fire is very much a story in the tradition of such well-known "the day after" sagas as George Stewart's Earth Abides; Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon; and David Brin's The Postman, to which Stirling even makes a quick, clever reference. To wit: civilization collapses, and the survivors must band together and pick up the pieces.
The Change occurs on a March evening in 1998, rendering all technology useless. Not only do electrical and electronic (even battery powered) devices go kaput, but gunpowder and dynamite won't explode either, rendering any weapon that isn't blunt or bladed useless. This might seem an implausibly specific and selective result from a flash of light — especially as Stirling chooses not to go into any scientific speculation about how it might have worked — but the point here is to explore the theme of how dependent humanity has become upon its technology (no small thing; try going a month without your electricity) and to what conditions we might be forced to regress if we are suddenly, and without warning, parted from it. I have to say that reading this book the week after Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans gave the story a degree of gravitas stronger than it would have had otherwise.
As in most tales of this sort, the survivors form a rich ensemble. Mike Havel is an ex-Marine and private pilot who is ferrying wealthy Ken Larsson and his family to a remote Idaho retreat when their plane goes down in the wilderness following the abrupt and inexplicable flash that marks the Change. Not far away in Portland, Oregon, Juniper Mackenzie, a Wiccan, bohemian, Lilith Fair-ish singer is playing in a small club when the world as we know it ends. Both Mike and Juniper will find themselves pressed into positions of leadership over the coming months, as it becomes very apparent very quickly that nothing is going to return to normal, ever. Those who survive will be those who take the initiative, rather than those who fearfully and naively sit by and await rescue.
The early passages compellingly portray the atmosphere of confusion and urgency following the Change. Apart from the aforementioned novels, Stirling has drawn from a few other influences as well, with Poul Anderson's novella "No Truce with Kings," depicting post-apocalypse feudalism, evidently a strong one. Mike and his party must endure the usual bands of Mad Max-y scum — bandits, rapists, even cannibals — and eventually Mike finds himself the leader of the Bearkillers, so-called after a frightening ursine encounter. They include the surviving Larssons, including daughters Signe and 14-year-old Astrid, a hardcore Tolkien geek and expert archer whose flights of imagination serve to build the new mythology of this new world and its people. (Mike is amusingly embarrassed to find that his moniker of "Lord Bear," dreamed up by Astrid, sticks.) Before long the Bearkillers' reputation spreads among the stragglers around the landscape, and the group's ranks grow quickly, despite Mike's strict, militaristic, but entirely necessary leadership technique.
Some miles away, Juniper reunites with most of her Wiccan coven, and, with the aid of other friends — one of whom had a brother in the SCA, so here come the useful medieval weapons — begins to build a homestead and finds herself, like Mike, saddled with an eye-rolling moniker, Lady Juniper. So I imagine readers will come away from this part of the book feeling fairly confident. If the world ends, Stirling reassures us that fantasy fans and Ren-Fair mavens have a pretty good chance of staying on top of the new pecking order!
Of course, there is a looming threat. The end of the world opens the door to would-be despots and evil opportunists. And the peace of post-Change Oregon is threatened by someone styling himself the Protector. Operating out of Portland (which he has effectively taken over), the Protector plans to fan out across the western part of the state, demanding fealty and tribute from whatever surviving farms his people encounter. When Mike first meets the Protector, he has the guy's number right away: he's a dilettante, living a king-of-the-world fantasy, lacking any real leadership skills that don't involve terror and violence. But even so, he's charismatic, and could be a real menace to the peace of the land if he rallies thousands of angry misfits to his side.
In Dies the Fire Stirling has more than done his homework. The book provides such exhaustive accounts of agriculture, military strategy, and the logistics of surviving off the land that you begin to think Stirling is the guy the government needed to send to New Orleans to singlehandedly feed and rescue Katrina survivors. There is also quite a lot about Wicca, more than you ever wanted to know. I probably learned enough about the different woods used to make bows to beat Legolas at Trivial Pursuit. And there's so much information on farming you almost feel like you could put down the book and do some yourself. This attention to detail enriches the story...but also burdens it. The middle third of this not inconsiderable book (over 570 pages in paperback) often drags as heavily as the middle third of Stephen King's The Stand, where the initial tension in the establishing chapters gives way to the minutiae of administrating the post-apocalypse world. Talk is presented by the pallet-load, with expository passages going on at length about non-essentials like Wiccan weddings. This section, quite frankly, could have been shaved nearly in half, and lost none of the book's epic quality, none of its characters' humanity or its story's authentic feel.
Despite this, most readers will see it through, mainly because it's hard not to be impressed with the work Stirling put into his scenario. And he does have a marvelous cast. Fans of character-driven SF and fantasy epics, who don't mind a little foot-shuffling in the story department as long as they have heroes to love, will be most likely to embrace this book. It's one of those "pick your favorite" casts, and I have a feeling a majority of readers will warm up most to Astrid. Stirling not only makes her something of a reader surrogate, with her love of fantasy, but succeeds wildly in imbuing her with the kind of inspirational, bright-eyed youthful optimism that sees everyone else through the grimmest crises.
The pace finally picks back up in the final 200 pages, when the Bearkillers and Juniper's clan form an alliance to strike against one of the Protector's outposts. There's a good climactic battle, involving the inspired use of hang gliders.
Yet there is one more nit to pick. I couldn't help thinking the book would have been so much stronger had the Protector played a more prominent role. When you create an arch-villain like this, why only have him turn up in about ten percent of your story? How much more interesting would it have been to see how he went about establishing his megalomaniacal rule, all the while we were seeing the establishment of Mike's and Juniper's benevolent ones? Sure, that way potentially lies cliché. But Stirling, I think, has demonstrated enough talent over his career that he can be trusted to avoid the most obvious of such pitfalls. That the book's final battle isn't against the Protector, but a handful of his inept men in a makeshift castle, makes it clear that Stirling is saving the best stuff for later. While this gives fans much to look forward to, it's also kind of a shame, because it's easy to see how this book could have been much more nerve-wrackingly suspenseful than it is. Dies the Fire has everything under the sun going for it, except the consistent presense of a powerful antagonist to keep the tension ramped up.
But there are moments here, not to mention people, that I won't forget, and I want to see what happens next in their lives. While Dies the Fire gets a standard, rather than effusive, recommendation from me, I have hopes that the trilogy it's inaugurated will set the world on fire.