I've been reading Stirling for quite some time, starting with the accidental picking up of the first Drake novel, Marching Through Georgia, thinking it was an alternate WWII novel involving the Axis marching through the state of Georgia.
Surprised pleasantly by the different AH, I moved onto other novels of his, including the Island in the Sea of Time novels and Conquistador, seeing Stirling's craft improve as he has written more novels. Its not that his early novels were bad, but there is clear improvement and better writing in his more recent novels.
Dies the Fire shows the "other side" of the event that sends Nantucket back to 1250 BC in the Island in the Sea of Time novels. While the island goes back in time, the rest of the world suffers a horrible catastrophe, the Change. Electricity, steam power, combustion, and, strangely enough, gunpowder, suddenly stop functioning on a fateful morning in 1998.
Stirling doesn't pull any punches. This is a Mathusian die-off event that will kill off most of the human population, and the survivors know it. In the Pacific Northwest, a few individuals manage to band together, and all of them face grave decisions of life, death and choices to be made in this post-apocalyptic world, and we follow their attempts to make their way in a vividly written and described landscape.
There is a strong "Founders Effect" that will likely, if I know Stirling, become even more prevalent in future novels. As much fortune as their skills, many of the more successful survivors are Wiccan, or SCA oriented, or history oriented, and most, naturally, have skills useful in a technological dark age.
Stirling's characterization is not the selling point of the novel, although I've read novels recently that feature characters that are far more cardboard and uninteresting, as readers of this space will well know.
This novel could have been a very different book in other hands. I can imagine Niven and Pournelle, for example, grinding a lot of political axes with such a book. Other writers might have softpedaled the nastier consequences of the Change and made it far more uplifting, to an unreasonable degree. Still other authors might have made this a story of trying to reverse or escape the Change, with lesser regard to the world created by it.
What Stirling does do very well, as expected, is evoke the sense of horror, of terror, and of grim determination to survive in a vividly described post-Change world. The book reinforces my high opinion of Stirling's work and I do look forward to reading the other two novels set in this series.
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