Ok, first – lets the get the biggest negative out of the way. While Stirling is obviously a fan of the “Wiccan” way of life and the “Craft” and its back to nature creed, I am not as interested in this aspect of the story and think that his constant harping on about how and why this type of people would have survived in the “changed” world gets really annoying. It’s something that is also pushed really hard in his other series – Island in the Sea of Time. My second negative of the story is that I do not understand why … well, OK, this won’t make sense unless you read the rest so I’ll have to ask you for your patience and that you read below.
Dies the Fire is the first book of the Emberverse series and tells the story of humanity’s struggle for survival after “The Change”. The Change is a sudden worldwide event that impacts all electrical and technological materials. In addition many of the physical constants that humanity has come to depend upon simply do not work the same or at all. Gunpowder burns instead of exploding and as such all guns and firearms are now completely useless. Primarily focused on two groups of survivors – the Bear Killers and the Clan Mackenzie – Dies the Fire also expounds on the happenings of the local warlord of the region and his gradual assimilation of the region.
The Bear Killers started out as a simple group of 5 indivduals. Mike Havel is a former Marine, now a bush pilot who is taking wealthy industrialist Ken Larson and his family (his wife Mary, Eric, Signe (twins) & youngest daughter Astrid) on a holiday in the bush. As The Change hits, the plane that Mike is flying simply stops working. Making an emergency crash landing the rest of the family come through OK, but Mary is badly hurt. Mike’s initial thought is that an EMP pulse (via means of a nuclear explosion) took effect in the region – which is why the plane stopped working. However when his rifle didn’t work either some questions start to be asked. Knowing that they cannot leave Mary, the whole party hikes away from the crash site to a ranger cabin in the woods. Along the way, Astrid’s experience and knowledge of archery (she is an avid Lord of the Rings fan, and thinks of herself as an elf!) comes into play and she is able to help keep the party fed.
After they arrive at the ranger cabin, Mike and Eric set out to the highway to see if they can find any help, but unfortunately here they encounter a group of racist survivalists who have captured Will Hutton and his family. Will Hutton is a horse trainer and breeder and the survivalists have captured and tied him up. Mike and Eric are able to save Will’s family but the survivalists escape into the forest chasing after Will Hutton. The survivalists recapture Will Hutton and come across the ranger cabin and by the time that Mike and Eric have managed to catch up to them, they have killed Mary and are in the process of raping Signe and Astrid. In a vicious little battle, all three survivalists are killed the 3rd and most vicious by Astrid herself who had been forced to watch as her mother was butchered.
Realizing after this encounter that the ex-Marine is best able to deal with the complexities of life in this new world, the party now including Will and his family agree that Mike will be the leader and they choose to head for Larsdalen which is the Larsson family estate in the Willamette Valley. Unfortunately in reaction to her near rape experience Astrid provokes a black bear with her bow. The slim arrow does nothing but enrage the giant bear who attacks the party. In a violent struggle the group is able to pull together and kill the bear which gives the group its name – the Bearkillers.
The other party is Juniper Mackenzie – a folk singer and Wiccan priestess. Juniper is performing a gig when The Change occurs. When a 747 crashes into the centre of Corvallis, Juniper, her daughter and their friend Dennis rush to help search for survivors and an explanation on what has happened. While working to save anyone in the raging fires that are rampant throughout Corvallis, looters discover also that guns are no longer operational and attack a policeman. Dennis and Juniper jump to help the policeman and in the process Juniper kills one of the attackers. Realizing that the event is larger than they initially thought and that it has impacted a significant portion of the world, Juniper and Dennis gather supplies and head for Juniper’s family cabin in the woods.
Other members of Junipers coven also realize the same and “liberate” supplies too for the same reason and along the way they rescue a dozen children that had been abandoned on a school bus.
The Wiccans arrive at the cabin together and it is only when Juniper joins with the rest of her coven that she learns that her husband – Rudi – the High Priest of her coven had died when The Change impacted the world in a plane crash. The wiccans pool their supplies realizing that it is only by looking out for each other that they will be able to survive in the new world that they are in. Calling themselves Clan Mackenzie after their high priestess, they start to farm their land and try to get other survivors to join up with them.
We are next introduced to “The Protector” – a University Professor who was doing a study on inner city gangs, The Changed world sees him a new warlord in the city of Portland. Lord Protector Arminger quickly takes over the regions around the city and inviting the gangs to meet with him, he informs them that in this new world, you can either be a farmer or someone that preys on the farmer. Arminger was a member of a revivalist cult also and is very familiar with the sword and shield which is what people will need to use in this new world. After a demonstration of his strength, the rest of the gang leaders quickly respond positively to his pronouncement and join up.
The Bearkillers continue on their trip to Larsdalen and along the way they continue to acquire other survivors and make a name for themselves, in small and large encounters with other humans including cannibals in the post Apocalyptic world that they are now in. Once the group has grown larger, Mike and some companions set of to scout the rest of the way ahead. Along the way, Mike meets Lord Protector Arminger who makes Mike an offer to join up with him. Mike plays along, but quickly escapes from the Protectors’ clutches. Juniper has also decided to explore the environment around her and the two groups meet when Juniper is attacked by a group of “Eaters” – human cannibals. Mike and his men assist Juniper and help her survive the encounter and there is instant attraction felt between them. Mike and Juniper take the chance and enjoy themselves together but both realize that they have larger commitments and people depending upon them so they decide to go their own separate ways. The encounter however leaves Juniper pregnant.
The Protector however has continued his expansion and when Juniper returns home, it is only to learn that the nearby town of Sutterdown has been attacked and occupied by Protectorate troops. In addition, in another part of the valley Mikes Bearkillers come to the Camas Prairie region. Here “Duke Iron Rod” has been getting support from the Protector also and his troops have been preying upon the citizens and farmers in the area.
The scene is now set for two climatic battles in separate parts of the Willamette Valley – Juniper and Clan Mackenzie fighting to remove the bandits from Sutterdown and The Bearkillers fighting against Duke Iron Rod and his men.
I’ll let you read the book to see how it finishes up.
One thing that you will notice throughout S.M. Stirlings books is that he does his research and he does it well. If he is not a Wiccan, he is very intimate with them and is able to write about them with authority. You’ve already read my previous statement with regards to my feelings on this … to give you my 2nd negative of this book, its perhaps that there are too many “lucky coincidences” with both groups. The fact that the Wiccans are able to find a ex-SAS soldier to join them just when they happen to be out hunting, the discovery of stocks of food and supplies just when they most need them etc… In addition, while he finally explores the possibility of steam power it’s really hard to believe that no-one in the book would have tried this till the book was almost over.
Character Growth & Development
Mike is a great character and someone I really enjoyed reading about. However Juniper is annoying and a bit too self righteous.
Story Growth & Development
I seem to be reading a lot of post apocalyptic fiction recently but this is actually a good one. The central idea that technology has just stopped working and all the ramifications that that has to modern society are really well explored. The “magic” of the Wiccan’s is a bit annoying but when it gets to plain old survival its really well discussed and delivered. Perhaps the only negative with regards to the story is that there is sometimes too much detail and it tends to make this book longer than it needs to be.
A really good book in this series – definitely worth reading and you will enjoy the series once you get into it.