This was yet another "on a whim" book (I'd say about half the books I buy are like this). Book 3 of the trilogy was what actually caught my eye, since it's titled A Meeting in Corvallis and I did a double-take, all, "Whaaaaa?! Surely they can't mean OUR Corvallis!"
As it turns out, surely they do. The books are part of a post-apocalyptic trilogy set in the Pacific Northwest, and with that, I was sold. I'm crazy about post-apocalyptic settings, and the chances that I will buy a book increase tenfold if it takes place in my beloved Northwest. It should come as absolutely no surprise that I walked out of Powell's with the first book of the trilogy.
Unfortunately, I think I raised my expectations too high. Or perhaps I was expecting a different sort of book. Either way, I'm not enjoying it nearly as much as I thought I was going to, and although I'm determined to finish it, the way everything ultimately turns out will determine whether I read the other two books.
Here's where I'm having trouble: for me, part of the draw of the post-apocalyptic setting is seeing how everyday people deal with the end of the world. Ordinary people dealing with extraordinary events -- that's what I love. And in the few cases where you have people who are abnormally well-adapted to the circumstances they find themselves in, they're often handicapped psychologically. Crushing loneliness that drives them to the brink of sanity. An inability to acknowledge the terrible realities of their situation. The post-apocalyptic setting brings out the best and worst of the human condition, and watching characters struggle to survive in that sort of world is one of the things I find so fascinating. That they're usually ill-equipped to deal with the situations they find themselves in is part of the draw, because the reader knows that if he or she were in that same position, they'd probably be struggling in a very similar way.
And this is the problem with Dies the Fire -- Stirling's protagonists are astonishingly prepared to deal with a post-apocalyptic world. One is a Wiccan who owns her own out-of-the-way farm. Her coven? They're almost all craftspeople, folks who know how to make leather, plant gardens, work with wood, etc. Since advanced technology doesn't work anymore, they steal some covered wagons from an Oregon history exhibit that just happened to be there in order to make the trip out to the farm.
The other set of protagonists is just as bad. Their leader is an ex-military guy (with Native-American in his heritage, omg!) who goes backpacking in the rough country for fun. One member of the group is an SCA nerd who can accurately shoot a bow and arrow on horseback, while a few others are folks who raise and train horses. Oh, and they can make weapons. And chain mail. Because they have books on the subject. Argh.
It's this piling-up of skills and coincidences that I find frustrating, because it all feels too damn convenient. And it bugs the shit out of me that the leaders all immediately -- and correctly -- assume the worst about what's gone down, and their groups go along with their plans with virtually no disagreement. It's the sort of thing that makes me want to throw the book at the wall. A group under pressure is a stewing, bubbling vat of conflict, and looking at how and why people disagree with each other is a beautiful way to develop character. But Stirling just blows right past it. Everyone is ridiculously cooperative, and I'm having trouble keeping track of people because they've all blurred into a single crowd of "yes" men.
And women. I have to be equal opportunity about these things.
If there was a clear-cut antagonist, perhaps I'd be a little more forgiving. In post-apocalyptic settings, the world itself is usually the antagonist, with human nature and individual people along for the ride. Unfortunately, nature isn't being nearly as hardcore an antagonist as I'd like, because the main characters keep stumbling upon ridiculous windfalls and all of them are more or less taking the whole "end of the world" thing in stride. There have been a few human antagonists, but they were dispatched fairly quickly, and aside from a brief interlude with some baddies in Portland (which was entirely unconnected from the main storyline, I might add), there's no real sense of danger whatsoever. Come on! It's the end of the fucking world! Where are the stakes?!
I'm not saying that I want him to torture the characters or anything. But the stakes need to be higher, and we need to see what the characters stand to lose. If everything comes easy to them, where the hell is the conflict? I would much rather see a small, starving group of people exult over finally catching a rabbit for their meal, than see a group of people who are actually eating pretty good delight over an elk their 11-year-old brought down with a freakin' bow and arrow.
Seriously, Stirling? An elk? By the time they bring down a bear later, I felt like I was rolling my eyes so hard they were going to fall out of my head.
This could've been such a good book. It breaks my heart that I'm sick of it before I even hit the halfway point.