Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dies the Fire - S.M. Stirling

I think we can all agree that end-of-the-world storylines are having a moment right now.  It's not a new concept; books such as 1984 and Farenheit 451 made waves several decades ago and have now been filed among the classics of English literature. I doubt that most of today's best-selling dystopian novels will stand the same test of time, although they certainly are a thrilling ride. Divergent, though not the most well written book I read last year, was one I recommended frequently. The Hunger Games brought in immense amounts of box office revenue and promises to do the same when Catching Fire hits theaters this fall. On television, Revolution is slowly picking up steam and becoming a show I actually care about (when does that come back already?!) while my husband is newly obsessed with The Walking Dead.  Let's face it; we even brought this genre off the page/screen and into pop culture with the whole Mayan apocalypse nonsense in December.  Apparently we all really want to know the fate of planet Earth (spoiler alert: read Revelation).

It should be no secret by now that I love these stories as much as anyone else.  Not only due to that copious last paragraph, but also the multitude of books in this genre that I read last year.  While most of us have only recently begun to clamor for worlds without technology and devastated civilizations, S.M. Stirling has been roaming the wastelands of literary dystopia for years now.  Dies the Fire was released in 2004, the first book of the Emberverse series.  The Nantucket series, a correlating storyline, dates back to 1998.  Stirling's conception of a world without technology predates even the Y2K scare.  Impressive.  (Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Dies the Fire takes place out west, mainly within the Willamette Valley.  On a typical night in 1998, the Change suddenly occurs and all modern technology (including guns) stops working.  Stirling describes the stories of two distinct group of survivors.  One, led by ex-Marine-turned-private-pilot Mike Havel, finds themselves in the middle of the wilderness after their plane crashes.  Another, led by Wiccan single mother Juniper Mackenzie, begins farming outside of Corvallis, Oregon.

American society in the West quickly deteriorates toward Medieval standards.  Havel and his Bearkillers, named after he knifes a bear, take up chain mail and sword fighting.  The Mackenzie clan plow fields and build a log palisade.  The book maintains a fairly dark tone with much bloodshed and several villains seeking to seize power post-Change.  Apparently, the Nantucket series, which I did not realize existed until after I began reading this book, has a lighter feeling.  I will admit, Dies the Fire was a bit too dark for me.  I plan to read at least the next book in the series, if not them all.  I definitely want to read the Nantucket series, though.  I struggled to connect with the story at times.  Having lived in the Midwest by entire life, I do not have a lot of context for the settings in which the plot takes place.

Stirling definitely created his characters a bit extreme as well.  One Tolkein-obsessed teenager happened to have a well crafted bow and arrows with her at the time of the Change.  How convenient.  The Mackenzie clan stumbles across a woman who practices archery in her free time, while the Bearkillers recruit a fencer.  While I realize people such as these are out there, they do not seem to be as populous as Stirling would have us believe.  Or maybe they are out West - again, my Midwestern roots put me at a disadvantage.  I also recognize that those without such a particular set of skills (like Liam Neeson has) would be among the first to die out.  People like me would have no clue how to survive (Trust me.  Kevin and I have talked about this on many occasions.  If the world ends, I am counting on him to keep me alive).  Still, I would have liked to see a few more of us rooted in modern culture make it through the time warp.

I did enjoy the book, despite my whining.  I liked the quick pace Stirling kept.  Many months would pass at a time and kept the story moving.  I would have appreciated a little more help keeping track of just how much time has passed, but I will take what I can get.  Stirling provided plenty of action and even romance.  There is not much character development, but enough to keep me interested.  As I said, I will read the sequel for sure and just take this one book at at time.  I am certainly not committing to the whole series yet.

On a funny sidebar, I started reading this book before bed one night.  I read the first four or five chapters and then fell asleep imagining what I would do should all technology fail us.  In the morning, our power went out just after my alarm had gone off for the first time.  I had to complete my entire getting ready process by candlelight (we newlyweds haven't gotten around to buying a flashlight yet).  Picture me doing my makeup with one hand and holding a candle up to the mirror with the other.  I found the whole experience deliciously ironic considering my reading material the previous night.  Thanks to Stirling, the power outage found me prepared to survive without modern least for a few hours.

What end-of-the-world books are you reading?  Or shows are you watching?  Anything worth picking up?  What makes a good dystopian novel versus a poor one?  Is it all about the characters? the plot? the extent of the destruction?  

Pages: 592
Date Completed: January 16, 2013

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