I thought this book would be about cryptography and codebreaking in World War II. I expected Bletchley Park and Alan Turing and Nazi double-agents, with a female mathematician as the protagonist, which sounded cool... maybe something like a light cozy version of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.
Alas, no. This was a "cozy" of the most offensively stupid and badly-written kind. Characters who are just quirky/"charming" composites of personality traits (expect many, many recyclings of British/American stereotypes vis-a-vis tea and coffee) and nicknames, arbitrary name-dropping of historical figures and events, usually accompanied by long infodumps to remind us that this is taking place in England during World War II ('cause the title wasn't a big enough clue), and cardboard villains (Nazis and IRA terrorists who practically twirl their mustaches while cackling over England's demise). A male character is introduced as "enigmatic" and "frustrating" (and yes, we're just told he's enigmatic and frustrating, he never actually does anything enigmatic or frustrating) - i.e., DESIGNATED LOVE INTEREST in great big flashing letters, but not content to leave any cliche unplumbed to its depths, sure enough, he and the main character spend most of the book snapping at each other and declaring one another to be insufferable and impossible and annoying while giving each other looks accompanied by "unexpected" hot flushes at Significant Times.
Maggie Hope ("Magster" to her friends - seriously, was that even done in the 40s?) is British by birth, born in London to British parents, but raised in America by a college professor aunt after her parents died in a car crash. With a PhD in mathematics, Maggie returns to London to sell her grandmother's house, just as World War II begins. By various contrived circumstances, Maggie winds up as a typist/secretary to Winston Churchill himself, by which device the author recites verbatim many of Churchill's speeches, inserting some adoring commentary from Maggie. We also get an extraordinarily cutesy take on Churchill as a fictional non-fictional character, which the publishers have the nerve to call "psychological insight into Winston Churchill," just like they call this book "meticulously researched" because MacNeal mentions Alan Turing (in a single sentence) and makes an allusion to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. (I guess MacNeal thought she was being clever by showing she can read Wikipedia.)
Oddly enough, though Maggie's aunt is a lesbian and one of her British friends (who works with her at Downing St.) is gay, this is something that is just accepted with open-minded tolerance by Maggie and her friends, along with cheery hopes that someday he won't have to keep it a secret. That's about as far as the book goes in addressing the very real persecution of homosexuality that existed at that time — you'd think if the author is going to name-drop Alan Turing, who was later forced to undergo chemical castration because of his homosexuality and ended up committing suicide (hey, Susan MacNeal, that's on Wikipedia too!), she might have had the characters acknowledge that homosexuality was actually a rather serious secret to be harboring. But no, the gay characters apparently exist only to show us how open-minded Maggie is and to score the author some gay-inclusion points.
Maggie is a mathematician and we are frequently told how brilliant she is, which is mostly an excuse for her to go on periodic rants about how unfair it is that she's not allowed to be a codebreaker and is relegated to being a typist and how sexist society is and how sexist her coworkers are blah blah blah. Okay, fair enough, it was a very sexist time period and no doubt a smart university-educated woman like Maggie would have been very aware of and irritated by this, but her repeatedly getting up on a soapbox to tell us that England in the 1940s was sexist and the sky is blue do not feel historical or even appropriate for her circumstances, just an excuse for the author to show us how very feisty and feminist her character is. Her friends mostly just kind of nod and say "Gosh, you're right Maggie, oh, hey, what is Winston Churchill really like?"
Maggie also decides she's either American or British whenever it suits her. When her friends or coworkers question her dedication or trustworthiness because of her American upbringing, she loudly tells them she's British by birth and a British taxpayer and a British homeowner and British, dammit! But when they start criticizing America, she defends the US and complains about the UK and doesn't correct them when they refer to Roosevelt as "your President."
Does Maggie ever use her codebreaking skills? Yeah, kind of, at the level of a 12-year-old cracking his first alphanumeric-substitution cipher.
The plot involved a really stupid Nazi/IRA plan to assassinate Churchill and some "surprise twists" that are pretty lame (and also spelled out for us beforehand by the author's constant "telling"), but it still could have been moderately entertaining anachronistic brain candy if the writing hadn't been so terrible.
Ever heard the writing advice "show don't tell"? You have if you've ever flirted with writing even a little. Mr. Churchill's Secretary could be a case study in how to tell without showing. We are told that everyone is very inspired by Churchill's speeches. We are told that the British bravely face the Blitz. We are told that this or that major event happened. We are constantly told what characters are thinking and feeling, in lieu of having them actually say it or act like it. When a character dies, we are told they died. The book is also full of head-hopping by a third-person narrator who can't decide whether she wants to be close-third or omniscient. Really, I could not believe this book got published, the writing was so bad.
It doesn't help that all the women are constantly "shrill," "hysterical," "trilling," and their eyes are constantly filling with hot tears on every other page. There's your "feminism" for you. The female characters are also the ones who break down, the female villains are the ones who are easily overpowered - I mean, at one point someone walks into a room and just walks over and takes a gun from a woman holding it pointed at someone else because... she's a woman and couldn't actually be a threat, with a gun? And of course they are also the ones who have second thoughts and end up abandoning their cause when they find out that gosh, Nazis and IRA terrorists are actually bad people who do bad things - why they never imagined that things might get ugly!
Just bleah, bleah, bleah. A dumb story without a spark of originality or nuance, and offensively bad writing. And this is the first in a series. No, I will not be reading the sequels. If you're looking for an exciting tale of a codebreaking female special agent in World War II, don't get suckered like I was, because this book is mindless and poorly crafted. 1.5 stars, the half star because the story is kind of okay for what it is, but I am rounding down instead of up like I usually do because I have read fan fiction and rough drafts written better than this and I am depressed that this book got published.
This is the second book in the Grimnoir trilogy. I was quite taken with Hard Magic, so I pushed the next book up on my queue. This is an alt-history world in which some great magical "power" came to Earth in the 1850s, granting magical superpowers to a small percentage of the population. Now these magical "Actives" are being persecuted by the government; in fact, the conspiracy to round up and inter or eliminate all Actives is what drives much of the action in Spellbound, though the real threat is something much worse.
Most of the characters are returnees from book one, from Jake Sullivan, the smarter-than-he-looks gravity-controlling bruiser and war hero to Faye Vierra, the super-smart, super-fast Okie girl with teleportation powers, ninja fighting abilities, and super-ADD. Most of our other (surviving) friends from Hard Magic are back too, and as the 30s roll on, Correia continues to insert historical figures into his magical alt-history. Interestingly, it looks like there will be no World War II, or at least a very different one, since we learn here that Hitler got put up against a wall in Germany when he first starting making trouble.
But that's okay, because in this version of history, the Japanese Imperium is becoming nigh-unstoppable. In addition to a massive military and superior technology, they also have the most powerful Actives in the world, notably their elite Iron Guard, whom we met in the last book. Chairman Tokugawa, the Big Bad of the previous volume, makes a cameo here to let Jake Sullivan know that things are only going to get worse.
Correia does a good job of weaving the two threats simultaneously throughout the book: the treachery and abnegation of civil rights threatening the knights of the Grimnoir from their own government, and the cosmic horror that is apparently approaching Earth to destroy the source of all magic, and the Earth. He adds a new main character to the cast in the form of an Iron Guard gone ronin.
Mostly this is another action adventure with loads of cinematic fight scenes, culminating in a battle in Washington D.C. against a 70-foot-tall demon. (Really.) Like Hard Magic, Spellbound may purport to be an alt-history fantasy, but it's really a superhero novel.
It's also the middle of a trilogy, which means you'll miss a lot if you haven't read the first book, and not much is resolved at the end of this one. But it continues to be highly entertaining high adventure, not terribly deep but great fun. Correia is starting to let his politics creep out a bit more (FDR is apparently going to be the Worst President Ever), but it's mostly held in check until the villainous leftist fall-guy's monologue at the end, where he practically twirls his mustache and cackles villainous leftist laughter.
Notwithstanding the straw-leftists, though, it's still a fun series. And Bronson Pinchot - you know, I hated Perfect Strangers, but he makes an excellent narrator!
If you're like most people in the 21st century, the image you have of Scientology is probably Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch, while promoting War of the Worlds in 2005 on Oprah. His manic performance while waxing ecstatic over his love for Katie Holmes (wife #3) turned him into a punchline, and this was in the middle of his renewed advocacy for Scientology, a "religion" that is probably most famous for attracting so many Hollywood celebrities, most notably Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but the list is actually quite large.
Of course, this being the 21st century, everyone has access to the Internet and so if you've ever been the least bit interested in Scientology, you have probably also heard about Xenu and "Body Thetans" and all the other stuff Scientologists aren't supposed to learn about until they reach "OT3."
Tom Cruise himself, according to Janet Reitman's detailed history of the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, said "What is this sci-fi bull****?" when the secrets of Galactic Overlord Xenu were finally revealed to him. And yet he went on to become Scientology's most public and effective advocate, and according to Inside Scientology, a one-man cash cow for the church, which has a habit of dramatically overstating its membership numbers.
L. Ron Hubbard himself, a science fiction author who knew all the big names back in the early days of pulp sci-fi, was a huckster, a con-man, and a relent self-promoting machine. You may consider his ethics and the made-up religion he created to be dodgy at best, but you cannot help but admire how he turned every adversity and setback into a win for himself. By the time he died, he was a Christ-like figure to his followers, who made him and his church incredibly rich.
Inside Scientology is not a sensationalistic hit-piece on Scientology. Reitman tries to be as even-handed as possible, but just reporting the plain facts about Scientology, without the church's PR spin or outright falsification, inevitably casts it in a negative light. There are people, even who have left the church, who to this day insist that the "tech" works and that Scientology helped them. Yet the stories of abuse, of milking members for every dime of their savings and then putting them to work in what amounts to voluntary indentured servitude when their money runs out, of distortions and deceptions, of massive, widespread campaigns of organized harassment and gaslighting and ruinous litigation for the sake of destroying the church's enemies, make one wonder how anyone could see the Church of Scientology in a clear light and not see it for what it is? And for that matter, how does anyone in the 21st century with an Internet connection actually join this "religion" (yes, I'm going to insist on putting that in scare quotes), after reading about Xenu?
Well, in short, according to Reitman, Scientology has indeed taken a big hit since the advent of the Internet and the ability of anyone to go on online and read all about their more esoteric/bizarre doctrines and their history. Most new Scientologists today are kids who were raised in the church, and the church does its best to keep its members in a bubble, told to avoid reading critical books or articles or websites and avoid "suppressive personalities" (i.e., people hostile to Scientology). Yet evidently, some are still drawn into it, and the church's "celebrity strategy," which famously netted Tom Cruise, is still keeping their Hollywood org jumping.
Reitman's history goes all the way back to L. Ron Hubbard's early days, and the evolution of "Dianetics" into a full-blown religion. The tactics of the church, which were belligerent and ruthless even in the early days, and led to them essentially bullying the IRS into granting them tax-exempt status in 1993. Reitman is especially critical of Scientology's current leader, David Miscavage, who took over the reins of the church from LRH and is, from Reitman's account, exactly the sort of insecure, micromanaging, thin-skinned egomaniac you never want to see in power.
This is all fascinating stuff, and rather heart-breaking when you see how much damage the "religion" has caused over its relatively brief history. And yet, people still embrace it, even some of its outcasts. Are they really so different from Catholics or Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons or Muslims? All religions have pretty lurid histories and it's easy to portray any of them as terrible, cult-like conspiracies.
I think after reading this book you will see plenty of differences that mark Scientology as... something else. Still, this book is written as a piece of journalism, not a critique, and the church itself was surprisingly cooperative with the author. So if you are interested in that wacky Hollywood religion with its arcane jargon, and don't just want to read a screed by an ex-Scientologist about how awful Scientology is, Inside Scientology is a very good place to start.
I think that reading Shakespeare's plays does not do them justice - they aren't meant to be read, they are meant to be performed, and seen performed. However, you also miss a lot if you aren't already familiar with the context and the Shakespearean language, because of course ol' Will packs a lot into every single line.
So, this is the famous play about the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar, fearing his ambition to become king. Among the famous lines to which we owe this play: "Et tu, Brutus?" "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!" "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once." And "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Mark Antony's speech is probably the highlight of the play. Having just been informed of Caesar's death, and with the assassins having convinced the Roman public that they'd saved Rome from a tyrant, Mark Antony gives his famous speech which is a masterpiece of mob manipulation, turning them against the conspirators and in favor of the slain Caesar.
The conflicts are patriotism versus friendship, loyalty versus ideals, and the taint of self-interest always present in one's motives. As a tragedy, this is one of those Shakespearean plays where almost everyone ends up falling on a sword one way or the other.
Brutus is clearly the protagonist, but I think Mark Antony wins it.
Performances were clear and dramatic in this production. Not quite as good as seeing the play, but all the action is clear enough with minimal sound effects.
Robert McCammon is better known as a horror author, and he brings his horror-novelist sensibility to this big, thick historical novel: it's gritty and dark and full of bloodshed and perversion, kind of schlocky and gratuitous in places (like the almost irrelevant subplot about the dude who really, really loves his horse...), and yet entertaining enough to keep me going through the entire massive length of it.
Matthew Corbett, our protagonist, is accompanying his employer, Magistrate Isaac Woodward, to the fledgling town of Fount Royal, a tiny little hole in the Carolina swamps with aspirations of becoming a port town. It seems there has been a series of murders, arsons, and all sorts of wicked goings on, and since this is the American colonies circa 1699, obviously it must all be the fault of a witch. A witch is duly found: the beautiful widow Rachel Howarth, who makes a convenient scapegoat since she's hot enough to inspire lust in the men and jealousy in the women, her husband is dead, and she's half Portuguese.
After a prelude in which Matthew and the magistrate are almost murdered in their sleep by a sinister innkeeper on the road to Fount Royal, they arrive at the town and discover that the town's founder basically expects them to deliver a guilty verdict right quick so they can get the witch burned and get back to business. Magistrate Woodward, however, actually insists on hearing evidence and allowing the accused to testify, much to everyone's disgust. Meanwhile, Matthew, being a 20-year-old virgin, naturally falls in love with Rachel, becomes convinced of her innocence, and sets about trying to convince the magistrate and the townsfolk, in a world where an accusation is as good as proof. Everyone, even a child, testifies to having seen Rachel Howarth conducting Satanic orgies. While their stories have some holes, none of them seem to have a reason or inclination to lie. Matthew, an incessantly curious and persistent fellow, keeps asking questions while the townsfolk are already picking the stake to burn Rachel on.
Speaks the Nightbird is a historical novel full of colorful if dubious details. McCammon does not gloss over how unclean, uncivilized, and generally gross the 17th century was, especially in a backwater like Carolina. The novel is also pretty engaging as a mystery. Fount Royal of full of shady characters all of whom seem to have mysterious pasts and secondary motives. Matthew goes poking into everyone's business, getting knocked around and at one point jailed and whipped for it, witnesses everything from a little horsey action to mesmerism, and eventually uncovers the truth about everything and everyone.
The ending is, while not quite fantastic, skirting the boundaries of plausibility. McCammon brings all sorts of weird plot twists into play, so figuring out the mystery is not something the reader is likely to do ahead of time unless your mind leaps to bizarre explanations, but the conclusion is satisfying.
While Jon Ronson reveals a great deal about his own neuroses in this book, he casts little light on the psychopaths he is allegedly researching, though he does give some interesting insights into the "madness industry" of psychologists who have studied, categorized, labeled, and tried to treat psychopaths, mostly without success.
Ronson begins with a strange introduction to the field of psychology and mental illness thanks to a group of Scientologists, who chose him to "expose" the evils of psychology. Scientologists believe that all mental disorders are because of engrams accumulated from past lives or space aliens or some such thing. L. Ron Hubbard had a particular hatred of psychologists. Ronson spends a little time discussing the peculiarities of Scientology, but this book is primarily about psychopaths and what makes them tick... and what makes the people who study them tick.
After reading The Psychopath Test, it is not hard to believe that you have to be a little bit crazy to study crazy people. (Look out for those Abnormal Psychology majors...) From the arbitrariness of what goes into the DSM (did you know that far more copies are sold to interested non-academics/non-practitioners than to mental health professionals?) to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a diagnostic tool that's become a quick and dirty way to label someone a psychopath, to the Rosenhan Experiment, the history of psychology is filled with enough self-reinforcing bumbling and egomania to make one think the Scientologists may have a point.
While Ronson's book is a collection of interesting anecdotes and observations, digressing into the overmedication of children, misdiagnoses of autism, and the brutality of capitalist devotion to "shareholder value," between interviews with ex-death squad leaders and allegedly psychopathic CEO Al Dunlap, it's a bit weak in its critique of science, and sheds little light on his subjects.
Martha Stout's book The Sociopath Next Door was more illuminating. Ronson does, however, give a bit of a glimpse into the mind of a sociopath in a way that Stout only addressed abstractly: how do sociopaths/psychopaths (there is no technical difference between them) see themselves? Do they recognize that they are "broken"? Do they ever want to be cured, and can they be? (Short answer: no.)
Ronson's interview with Al Dunlap was particularly interesting, as he actually confronted Dunlap with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, and the allegations that Dunlap, according to this tool, scored high on the psychopathy scale. Dunlap proceeded to point out that every behavior presented as evidence of being a psychopath could also be interpreted as someone who has a forceful and driven personality who gets things done. True enough, there is a lot of evidence that psychopathy is an asset in positions of power, like boardrooms.
Ronson is able to see how some of his subjects ape normal human reactions and manipulate people the way they'd handle a TV remote control, but others, like Al Dunlap, are more ambiguous. Is Dunlap really a psychopath, or just a merciless SOB? As both Stout and Ronson point out, even genuine psychopaths are rarely serial killers; most live law-abiding, respectable lives, though never out of any actual respect for the law or society.
An interesting if somewhat meandering trip into the perilous world of diagnosing psychopaths, The Psychopath Test is not exactly a weighty, heavily-researched book, but it will be of interest to anyone who has an, ahem, clinical interest in psychopaths.
The Earth is facing environmental catastrophe in the 23rd century. Humans have spread to other star systems, but generally not found a lot of Earth-like planets, and those they have found are already inhabited. A handful of intelligent alien races have been discovered, but all are primitive compared to humanity. Most alien races discovered, however, are long dead, and the most prominent is one that apparently traveled to other stars, as their monuments have been found across the galaxy.
Earth has generally taken a "hands off" approach to living natives, but as pressure mounts to begin terraforming habitable worlds as an escape plan, this "Prime Directive" morality begins to seem less desirable. There is an interesting reversal of the classic sci-fi trope, and subtle commentary on colonialism and how we might justify it in the future, when an argument is made to colonize an inhabited planet "for the natives' own good." They are in the middle of a savage global war, and it is claimed that some of them have become aware of the existence of their alien watchers, and are begging for intervention. That technological aid and imposed peace would incidentally involve Earthlings resettling on their hosts' planet would be only a logical extension of a benevolent intervention...
This is a fairly hard SF novel that will appeal to fans of "big idea" SF, particularly if you like academic/scientist protagonists. Jack McDevitt gets compared a lot to Arthur C. Clarke in the blurbs for this book, and that's a fair comparison. Also an unfortunate one as far as I'm concerned, because like Clarke's science fiction, The Engines of God did little to stir any passion in this science fiction fan. It was a perfectly well written book, it was just dry and flat and even the high stakes did not truly engage my interest.
I seem to be on a survivalist reading kick lately, enjoying various books about TEOTWAWKI scenarios. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that survivalist books and those who write them tend to be of a particular political bent. It is stronger in some than in others, but let's just say there are not a lot of people voting for Obama who write books about how the government is going to collapse and the key to survival is stashing guns and silver.
"A. American" is clearly making a statement with the very choice of pseudonym, but Going Home doesn't really get up on a soapbox until the end.
Instead, the first part of the book is about Morgan Carter's trip home after an EMP device shuts down his car and the power grid. He is in rural Florida when it happens — setting survivalist novels in Florida or North Carolina seems to be awfully popular. Certainly it's easier to explain someone carrying a gun around, as opposed to a survivalist novel set in New York or Maryland.
Morgan Carter is a prepper, and the chapters with Morgan are narrated from a first-person POV, so he goes into great detail describing the contents of his bug-out bag, the equipment he has, his survival tactics as he begins hiking home. Later he meets up with a naive college girl, another shotgun-toting survivor named Thad (obligatory Big Black Friend), and then some ex-army guys, and the novel becomes a little disjointed as it alternates between their viewpoints as they go their separate ways.
Mostly there is a lot of talk about gear and prepper basics, obviously intended to enlist the audience's interest. There are some deadly encounters with the usual sorts of low-lives whom you'd expect to turn orc when the grid goes down. As a survival story, it's not quite as compelling as One Second After or Alas, Babylon or Dies the Fire because all those books (besides being somewhat better written) are about the survival of communities, whereas Going Home is mostly a collection of individual survival stories. However, it does illustrate some of the issues an individual might have, being caught on one's own in a SHTF scenario, though the author makes it a lot easier for his protagonists by letting them all start out heavily armed.
Now, as I noted, a certain mistrust of the government and antipathy for dependent city-dwellers is at the core of most of these survivalist novels. "A. American" keeps this in check for most of the book, with Morgan making only a few comments now and then about screwed the unprepared are going to be and the observation that people turn "collectivist" awfully fast when they run out of stuff.
The end of the book, however, reveals who the true culprits behind the EMP device were. Well, President Obama is never mentioned by name, but let's just say this is a book that will appeal to those who believe in the NWO's black helicopters and FEMA camps.
This free Audible download describes a man fighting to get back to his family during a zombie outbreak. It was entertaining enough and the writing was okay, but basically it brought nothing new at all to the genre. The free sample consisted of the first chapter and part of the second, enough to give you a taste. I'm afraid it didn't captivate me. It was okay, but unless you're into all things zombie and just can't get enough of zombie apocalypses, I can't recommend it as a stand-out.
Either you dig Lovecraft or you don't. The guy had issues and his prose was the purplest, like most pulp writers of his time. But all American fantasy and horror written since the 1930s has been influenced by Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself was heavily influenced by others, of course, and At the Mountains of Madness, one of his most famous works, made explicit reference to Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
This is a novella about a scientific expedition to Antarctica. The Antarctic was even more mysterious and unknown in the 1930s, so it was a perfect place for Lovecraft to situate an ancient, alien city. His narrator, in recounting his perilous journey from which only he and one other explorer/scientist returned, is attempting to discourage others from following in their footsteps, lest they too unearth Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
All the classic Lovecraft tropes are here — alienness incomprehensible to human minds, non-Euclidian geometry, sanity loss, and awful truths about prehistory revealed. The city the scientists discover in the South Pole was once inhabited by a race of creatures from another star, known only as the Old Ones. The Old Ones were scientifically and culturally advanced, and created servants to help them build their great cities. These servants, awful, intelligent monstrosities known as Shoggoths, eventually rebelled against their creators, making this ancient story literally older than mankind.
Surprisingly to me, given Lovecraft's usual xenophobia and characterization of the alien as unknowable and inimical, his narrator displays an almost touching compassion and understanding for the Old Ones, observing that they were simply "men of another age, albeit alien."
In the climax, the awful truth is revealed, there is much slime and carnage, and the narrator narrowly escapes from the terrible underground tunnels of the ancient city of the Old Ones.
You will never see penguins the same way again. Tekeli-li!
Dies the Fire goes through the usual paces in an end-of-the-world novel: civilization collapses, there is much confusion and rioting, a few lucky/prepared ones are situated such that they don't starve while all the city-dwellers run out of food, there's a massive die-off, and then the most organized, ambitious, and/or ruthless are setting up fiefdoms.
The gimmick here is that "the Change" that causes the end of civilization literally changes the laws of physics. Gunpowder, internal combustion, and electricity simply stops working. The world is literally knocked back into the middle ages technologically. This device is an excuse to write an SCAer's fantasy: those folks in the Society for Creative Anachronism who spent time dressing up in plate armor and whacking each other with rattan swords are suddenly among the only ones with actual useful combat skills, now that guns no longer work. Sterling takes that ball and runs with it: the chief villain, who takes over Portland, Oregon, "the Protector," is a former history professor and an SCA member who uses his combat skills and knowledge of medieval history to immediately begin recreating his favorite period of history with himself in charge.
Michael Havel, military veteran and former pilot, becomes a warlord of sorts, quickly leveling up as the mercenary commander of the "Bear-Killers," with assistance from a teenage girl Tolkien-nerd who conveniently enough also practiced archery as a hobby.
As a gimmick, it's interesting and fun to see the survivors literally rediscovering medieval tactics out of necessity. "The Change" is never explained, though the characters speculate that aliens did it. It does become a bit much when witches (the wiccan kind, not the actual magic-using kind) form the basis for a large survival community, apparently because they're better able to organize and survive in a pre-industrial world. Juniper, the leader of the coven, who becomes High Priestess and "Lady Juniper," is constantly spouting "Blessed Be" and "Lord and Lady!"
Dies the Fire is not much of an actual survivalist story; there is discussion of how the survivors have to reimplement medieval technology and spend a lot of time getting agriculture going again the hard way, but most of the action is the battles against various bandit gangs and warlords.
Will be interesting to see if the author actually makes aliens responsible in the next book.
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