I prefer to describe the premise of this book the way the characters therein hypothesized "The Change". Alien space bats, using a bright worldwide flash, took away humanity's toys, be they electronic, gas. or chemically powered. Of course the characters are being ironic when they say this, but no better explanation is provided for the entirety of the story. So alien space bats it is...
Guns won't fire anymore. Gunpowder itself burns too slowly to produce a charge. And steam engines don't work, regardless of how hot the boiler. Electronics are dead too. It's as if someone or something selectively changed the laws of physics to turn the whole world into a Renaissance fair and live-action-roleplay event. Devout Wicca, Tolkien nuts, and medieval reenactors thrive in the new wasteland. Because when the lights go out, the nerds still have their swords and armor.
If you can get over how unbelievable the premise of Dies the Fire sounds, it's actually a very engrossing story. The author S.M. Stirling doesn't dwell on the improbable physics of his new world (how could he?) Which leaves him free to develop characters and build new societies and miniature civilizations. Throughout the book different types of leaders revert back to various stages of culture. The ex-military survivalist from Idaho leads a mongol horde, using scrap metal swords and hunting bows. The Wicca singer starts a remote Celtic farming community in the hills of the Willamette Valley.
The real peril in Dies the Fire isn't the technology-crippling bright-flash Change itself, but the lack of agriculture, communication, and transportation. With no way to ferry food into the major cities, namely Portland and Salem since this is based in the Pacific Northwest, the city folk are left to fend for themselves. Cannibalism is rampant. Death squads roam the burnt-out rural wastes. And a history professor turned super-villain has staked his claim on the Portland City Public Library, turning it into his fortress while he gathers inner-city gangs to mold into his army of dread knights.
The warriors of the new world don't strictly limit themselves to old ways, either. Roving factions are quick to use bicycles as their steeds. Pickups are hollowed out for horse-drawn wagons. Steel presses, punches, and sheet metal are used to create scale armor. Taken out of context this book could be used as a guide to turn your house into a garrison.
Blitzkrieg on Schwinns
Maybe it's the nature of the genre, but I can't help but compare this to the Fallout games, or other apocalypse novels like The Postman, I Am Legend, The Last Man, Z for Zachariah, The Road, The Stand, Alas Babylon... although the complete lack of guns is fairly new to post-apocolyptia. (Postman had guns, although bullets were exceedingly rare) One would think we've almost exhausted the possibilities for wasteland stories; killing raiders and cannibals with an arsenal MacGyver would be proud of. But Stirling successfully resurrects the templates of old warring societies to create knights in Denim and sneakers, without a single revolver in sight. The result is intriguing.
I would highly recommend this book. Unless you're one of those nitpicky, mincing types who can't overlook a little thing like warping the laws of physics. Is a fantasy about dragons and magic any more believable? Or vampire novels? Or accounts of the Bush presidency?