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Book Review: Dies The Fire – A Novel of the Change by S.M. Stirling

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I’ve only lately come to S. M. Stirling’s novels about The Change. I don’t know how I missed them, but I’m glad I found them. The good thing about starting late is that there already five books in the series, so I don’t have to wait from year to year to dive into those the way most of the fans have had to.

Stirling takes a very basic concept in Dies The Fire and runs with it for nearly 600 pages in paperback. It seems like with everything going on around us these days, more and more people are concerned with the end of the world or big changes in the way that we live. Those are primary concerns that everyone seems to have at one time or another even before this latest setback. Contrarily, some of the best books that have been written have focused on the end of the world as we know it. Somehow that basic premise of humanity surviving against all odds shores up readers and offers a feel-good all its own.

With Stirling’s novels about The Change (and that’s all it gets called—so far), no one knows why every electrical thing on earth stopped working in an eye blink. Batteries don’t work. Combustion engines don’t work. And strangest of all, gunpowder — which has nothing in common with the previous two energy sources — no longer works either. Conjectures fly throughout the book regarding the reason for the loss of power.

But in a moment, the world is slammed back to the Dark Ages and the natural predations of men emerge.

A massive electromagnetic pulse is suggested by one character, while another holds out for superior aliens who come to take our toys away. As yet, Stirling hasn’t revealed the reason behind The Change. There is a rumor that he’s going to tie these books in with his Nantucket novels. That means I have more books to read, but it also gives me the answer for why things are going wrong in this series. I’m not convinced that I really want to know yet. I’m enjoying discovering this new land and all these new problems as I read the series.

The author doesn’t just tell stories about people. He also discusses and weaves in theories about culture and legend and heroes. I loved how he braids new threads for the world and graces it with an emerging history that is unique yet plays upon everything I’ve read in myths and legends ever since I was a kid. Tolkein’s fantasies even become a major part in the remaking of this world, in a way that I truly found fascinating.

The book starts out with Mike Havel, a bush pilot with a background in special forces. Havel has been a survivor practically since the day he was born. His military experiences as well as his heritage as an American Indian come into play time and time again. Yet for all his survival skills, Havel is constantly in over his head as he tries to lead a ragtag group to safety. That effort snowballs and it isn’t long before Mike finds himself responsible for a group of mercenary horseman.

Mike Havel is one of those iconic heroes that I love to read about. No matter how hard the road is, he tries to do the right thing all the time. And best of all, sometimes doing the best thing brings him the most problems. He handles himself well in a fight, but he still struggles to figure out how to handle other people and get things done. Fortunately, he’s got people he picked up along the way who have skills that add to his leadership. I really enjoyed the fact that Mike couldn’t do everything by himself as well. The realization that he didn’t always have the answer and needed other people made me like him even more.

With Havel, Stirling concentrates on the warrior’s role in society. Havel has a specialized skill set, and it’s one that people are willing to pay for no matter what the economy does or what kind of world he’s in. He’s willing to risk his neck to further his goal of taking care of his people, and he’s even willing to train others to risk their necks as well because he knows they have no choice and no other skill sets. He can’t teach them everything, but he can teach them to survive and to fight.

The other major character in this novel is a Celtic witch named Juniper. She practices Wiccan rituals and maybe manifests some magical power in this novel, but Stirling carefully hides that card. Technology has ended in the world and he doesn’t come out and say that magic has returned. Personally I don’t know if I really want magic to return. I like this rough-hewn world that the author has created as it is, without throwing in any magic spells.

With Juniper, Stirling concentrates on the necessity of a family and a society. Where Havel becomes a wanderer, Juniper and her people work hard to settle in, to start a farm and raise a crop that they can live off. However, settling down also makes them a target. When other people see that they are successful at taking care of themselves, they come to Juniper and her little group in need. Alternately, Stirling shows the hard side of life, in that not everyone can be taken care of when resources are meager. Then he shows how a family or society continues to grow sometimes even when it’s not convenient.

That line that Juniper has to walk, between savior and stern-hearted matriarch, is a wonderful dichotomy in the book. Knowing her limitations, knowing her families limitations, is important. I think it shows a lot about the obligations of social responsibility, how to recognize when someone can be socially responsible. and when someone can’t. It also shows the price people have to pay when they have to turn someone away who they know they cannot save. Choosing to rescue or not rescue someone comes with hardships.

Aside from the social and cultural revelations Stirling offers, he writes some crackerjack action sequences that will fill the mental movie screens of every reader out there to overflowing. The author knows his weapons, and he knows how war is waged.

In Dies The Fire, Stirling also sets up the villain. The Lord Protector doesn’t get much space in this book, but I got the definite feeling that a cataclysmic battle is building. This guy is a definite nemesis for Mike Havel and Juniper because he has a lot of the same skill sets the warlord and the witch possess. But he uses his powers for evil, and that’s gonna be a conflict of epic proportions.

I’m really looking forward to reading these first three books because they complete one arc in the series. The second trilogy takes place about 20 years later. Two of those books are already out, and by the time I catch up with those, the third book should be in my hands. Maybe I was late getting to these books, but the timing seems to be most fortunate.

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