It’s been a while since my last apocalypse (not counting The Walking Dead on AMC, naturally), so it was with anticipation that I opened Dies the Fire. While it scratched some of those survivalist itches, unfortunately, when I finished, I felt nothing but relief. And not the good kind.
Actually, I feel kind of ranty about the book. It is such an archtypical tale, an Aesop’s fable with details–lots and lots of details–but no originality, no finesse in characterization or plotting that it is really quite predictable. Start with the characters: it centers around two people, Michael Havel,
archangel, ultimate Male, former Marine, bush pilot, hunter, survivalist, and Juniper Mackenzie, Mother Earth, ultimate female, Wiccan, musician, Renaissance Faire player and general people-person. Their backstories are somewhat fuzzy, except when providing an explanation for their skills and resources. While they have some dimension to their personalities, in the sense of having hopes, fears, anger and determination, they are essentially ideal role models, both in terms of community leadership and in coping with disaster.
The plot doesn’t inspire or stretch, offering little to the apocalypse canon except an exploration of a variety of communities and leadership styles in one book. Stirling decided on two rules for his apocalypse setting: the absence of explosive combustion (i.e. gunpowder) and absence of mechanical electrical function (as opposed to nerve impuse conduction). From there, his premise is that society would rapidly break down. People would be unable to manufacture enough food to sustain more than a village, production would go back to being extremely labor intensive, and cities would be deathtraps of disease and violence. Granted, I wasn’t reading closely towards the end (there’s a lot of detail here and the Wiccan stuff got on my nerves), but I don’t believe there is ever a satisfactory explanation. Early on, Stirling hints there might be more to the story: “Juney…Juney, if I didn’t know better, I’d say someone, or some One, just changed the laws of nature on us.” I can accept ordinary people not knowing the explanation for why the world has changed, but the combination of mysticism and pseudo-physics was annoying. As far as I can tell, the explosive angle was necessary so that Stirling could play with his concept of humanity and civilization in a world without guns.
Stirling postulates an extremely rapid societal breakdown due to immediate thirst, starvation and disease, and a subsequent rise of pre-industrial social structure. Plotting coincidences abound, so that Stirling can make some sort of point. In the first few chapters, we have Michael with a fire-starter kit in his pocket (while flying a plane), Juniper’s ownership of a distant cabin/land despite her hand-to-mouth musician existence, a local museum exhibit on pioneer days, and friends that own heavy draft horses (uncommon in the horse world). Then there’s Juniper’s barkeeper friend hanging on to some swords for his blacksmith/ RenFaire fan brother. One of Michael’s passengers is a Tolkien re-creationist and carries an old-fashioned bow and arrows. Michael rescues a horse trainer, conveniently shipping a small group of horses through the area. Juniper owns a gypsy wagon as part of her RenFair routine. Her neighbors have gotten in a load of seed potatoes (necessary for large-scale planting). Juniper rescues a Special Forces operative and bow-maker. The head bad guy happens to be a former head of the Society for Creative Anachronism. I don’t necessarily mind the coincidences now and then, but if Stirling went to such work to have gunpowder/explosive combustion stop working, why go to an equal amount of work to have his people set up with the equipment, skills, and thought patterns needed? It’s like pulling out Monopoly and deciding to make your own rules, but keeping the ideas of property, money, and rent. Why not just create your own game to explore your concepts?
Given my love of creativity and characterization, it’s a wonder I kept reading. I didn’t mind the details of how Juniper and her friend made their way north of the city, or Michael escaping the wilderness with his charges. I tend to enjoy that aspect of the apocalypse, although Stirling did give them a head start with their RenFaire experiences (numerous reviews mentions Stirling’s General Ode to RenFaires/SCA). What I minded is Juniper’s embodiment of Earth Mother and the over-the-top Wiccan characterization. For instance, in a moment of relief, Juniper almost crosses herself according to “die hard upbring,” then rethinks and “makes the Horns.” She swears by saying, “Goddess Mother-of-All,” “Mother-of-All,” and “Lady Mother-of-All” and traces pentagrams in the air for protection. She prays to the Goddess before any conflict or in thanks. She leads a coven and refers to her significant other as “boyfriend-cum-High-Priest” of said coven. Um. I’m pretty sure I’ve known a number of people of alternate spiritualities, but Juniper is the compilation of all the nuttiest stereotypes in one person. While I normally would have warmed more to her character, every “Goddess” epithet, invocation or exclamation had me cringing, largely because Stirling seemed to feel the need to use them in every Juniper-focused section.
General writing is serviceable. It mostly flowed well, focusing more on descriptive detail and describing action sequences than in lyrical world-building. There were a few mistakes: “Her stomach contracted like a ball of crumpled lead sheet” and “He gathered fir needles and leaves and twigs with hands that felt like flippers belonging to a seal a long way away.” I noticed them more frequently when I was re-reading bits for my review, which could mean they weren’t that noticeable, or I have a tendency to be very forgiving. Or skim. When Stirling stays in his comfort zone, it works.
By the time I finished, I understood where we were going. We have Juniper leading the healing and hearth-tending forces of a democratic clan. We have a group of monks protecting a town. We have Michael leading a military-like group. All of these agencies against the forces of feudalism. Sounds like a historical civilization thought experiment, no? Let’s see which strategy works or which type of leadership offers advantages. Never fear, this isn’t The Walking Dead–morality reaps just rewards. In all honesty, it isn’t a horrible read, but it isn’t a riveting one either. Borrow it from the library if you need to scratch an apocalypse itch. Just pass me the Benadryl instead.