Monday, May 02, 2005

While I'm in a Reviewing State of Mind....

...I'd like to talk about the last book I finished. "Dies The Fire" by S. M. Stirling I know a few of the people who read RSR have mentioned liking post-apocalyptic stories and that's what this one is, so here are my thoughts about "Dies The Fire". The basic plot of the novel is that there is a sudden, worldwide flash of blinding white light and then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, most modern technology doesn't work anymore. No one is sure why, but after the flash, electricity doesn't work, phones don't work, engines (in cars, planes, etc.) don't work, gunpowder won't fire, etc., etc. The book doesn't even deal much with why it happens, just with how a small segment of humanity deals with the situation. Have you ever read a book and when it was done you said "well, that was pretty good, but...."? That was my reaction to DTF. It was pretty good, could have been excellent. How frustrating to read a book that's almost excellent, but doesn't quite pull it off. First let's talk about a couple of things I didn't like so much. This book triggered a Pet Peeve Reaction in me. One of my Pet Peeves is the Hidden Trilogy Syndrome. You know...when you read a book, thinking it's a stand-alone story, only to get to the end of the book and realize it clearly isn't the end of the story, only the end of the first installment of the story. It's like those obnoxious season-ending cliffhanger episodes that were so popular in the television world a few years ago. I was so glad when those became less common! I have no objection at all to a story that's too large for one book being published as a trilogy or series. I just object to not being TOLD about it up front! I want to see something on the cover that says something like "Book One in the fabulous new FireFlash Trilogy", so I can make an informed decision about whether to go ahead and read the first part immediately or wait until they've all been published so I can read them straight through. It's not so bad if each story really stands on it's own like, for instance, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. The characters continue from one book to the next, but each story is self-contained and if she chose to never write another one I would be disappointed, but wouldn't feel like I'd been left hanging, dropped like a bad habit in mid-saga. But if S. M. Stirling doesn't write another book, well, this story just isn't finished. I would feel like I'd read half a book only to find the second half ripped away. I'm sure he intends to finish it, but you know, shi...uh...fecality occurs! What if, God forbid, Mr. Stirling suffered from an unfortunate bungee-jumping accident, or a curling-iron-in-the-shower mishap midway through writing the sequel and the story was never finished? Morbid? Maybe. But Margaret Mitchell intended to write a sequel to "Gone With The Wind" and had barely started when she was hit by a car and killed. So instead we have that hideous sequel "Scarlett", written by someone entirely different, years later, in which Rhett and Scarlett get back together, but only after being made into such generic characters and going through so many historical romance cliches that they might as well have changed their names to Brock and Blaze and called the book "Love's Savage Passion". Bleah. I know some people will argue that an open ending just makes it more realistic, but to that I say if I want realism, I can read non-fiction. If I want fiction that pretends to be realism, I can watch the evening news. When I read (or watch) fiction, I want it to be like Life With A Twist. I want someone to tell me a good story, with a beginning, a middle, and yes, an end. Real Life may not wrap up all the loose ends by our story's finale, but that's exactly what I want a fiction writer to do. So while I realize my Pet Peeve isn't something that would bother everyone, it bothers me. If a book is the beginning of a trilogy or series (and it became obvious by the last page that this one is!), I want to KNOW that before I commit to reading it.

The second thing that bothered me about DTF was that I felt like the pacing was uneven. This one bothered me more than the Hidden Trilogy Syndrome because I felt like it was very fixable with tighter editing and a little more revision.

While the characters and the story held my interest, there were some early parts of the story that I felt got bogged down when Mr. Stirling would go into excruciating detail about things like how to make a hunting spear from a kitchen knife and a...yaaaaawn...oh, excuse me...a broom handle.

Then later in the story, when I would have liked a few more details about certain action sequences, some areas felt rushed and glossed over. I felt like I'd been "yada-yada-ed". You know...."so the good guys offer to help the townsfolk chase off the bad guys, and they meet in the middle of town and yada, yada, yada, and the good guys win the fight". Uh, excuse me? Could you go back to that fight thing and tell me a little more about HOW they won??

It seems to me that a really good editor would have encouraged Mr. Stirling to cut some of the "survivor manual" stuff in the earlier part and use that word count to better advantage later in the story.

I know this is making it sound like I think it's a bad book, and that isn't the case at all. I liked it. It held my interest enough to keep me up reading past my normal bedtime when I got near the end, and I want to read the sequel(s). I just wish it had been given that little nudge toward excellence.

Some of the things I did like included an interesting cast of characters. There are a couple of different factions of "good guys" who are organizing their followers in very different ways and one of those groups is led by a Wiccan High Priestess who is structuring her group after a kind of hybrid of traditional Scottish clans and Wiccan covens. Very different and interesting!

There were also some fun literary references in there that tell me that Mr. Stirling likes some of the same books and authors that I do. Besides open references to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I caught buried mini-homages to Charles deLint, Poul Anderson, and Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise stories. And if those are in there, there are no telling how many other references I didn't catch. I find that kind of thing fun, and will be actively looking for them in the next story.

The plot was exciting and moved along well, barring the few previously mentioned rough spots in the pacing.

So I'd recommend "Dies The Fire" to fans of the post-apocalyptic fiction genre, provided you aren't bothered by the "to be continued" thing. I'll be watching for Mr. Stirling's next book and hoping he continues the things that made this one good, but makes the next one just a little bit better.