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A novel by Eric Flint
(2000, Baen Books)

Ring of Fire, book 1

A small town attempts to reestablish the United States after being pulled back to brutal seventeenth century Germany.


-- First reading (paperback)
September 6th to 15th, 2002


Intense and gritty for the most part, really exciting, and with a great historical slant to it. But I am not enamored of the way the author intercedes with pages of commentary of his own, and the book was rather feel-good, while it was trying to be gritty.

What happens when you take a patriotic American small-town and plop it down in seventeenth century Germany, in the middle of the Thirty Years War? This is one version. Without a doubt, they will influence the neighborhood. With the "hillbilly" attitude, they won't accept anything less than freedom, and won't tolerate the abuse of the women they encounter. The weapons that they undoubtedly have are superior by three hundred and fifty years to their enemies, and they even have a machine-gun!

But how realistic is this situation, given the premise? Even by the end, only a small handful of people are even hurt, much less killed. After the first chapters, we don't even hear of women being raped anymore -did that stop once the Americans came by? Did none of the Germans fall from grace once they entered the new society? The battles were so one sided that the Americans were reduced to slaughtering their relentless enemies. Nobody was forced to sacrifice their lives. The only thing they came close to sacrificing was their values of freedom -only Mike saved them from becoming another Inquisition, this time with American values replacing the dominant religion.

The book really starts off with a bang. Trying to figure out what has happened, Mike and his fellow miner workers go driving off, and encounter some mercenaries torturing a farmer and raping his wife. Their daughter runs off and is never heard from again. Actually, neither are the farmer or his wife. Mike and the others kill all of the mercenaries, and then defeat part of an army, as well. The battles were really well written, and they were fun adventures. Since the bad guys were so bad, it always feels amazing to conquer them. Like in Stone of Tears or Blood of the Fold, the German armies pillage, torture and rape, so the feeling of triumph when they are overcome is irrepressible. But I wonder how good the good guys really are. Did the Swedish army have any trouble-makers?

While it would be really nice to know a little more about the political situation in that area before going in, the author does a really good job of filling us in. Unfortunately, much of the time, he has to veer away from the story he's telling in order to educate us. The better historical parts take the form of dialog and thought processes between the characters of the day, especially the King of Sweden, Gustav Adolph, who is a real historical figure.

This book has succeeded in making me more interested in the history of that time. I think it's funny that I can recite the entire history of the world of the Silmarillion, a story that has similar roots to this one, but I know nothing about this period in real history.

As the town of Grantville discovers how dependent it will be on its surroundings, their influence increases. As the surrounding towns see what Grantville stands for, and that it practices what it preaches, tolerance and the law, they like what they see, and eventually the new United States has several stars on its flag. The Americanism is almost overwhelming, very patriotic and unashamed. Typically American in that the people of the town decide what is right or wrong, and the author assumes that everybody believes in the same basic principles, which is not true, especially of the people of the time. He states in no uncertain terms that our morality is the right one, and anybody who tries to tell us otherwise is betraying our God-given rights. I do believe that our morality is the right one, but it is certainly not the only one, nor the only correct interpretation. I think Mike summed it up nicely, though, when he said (concerning the bare legs of the cheerleaders) that they value the spirit of morality, not the words to be hidden behind. Honesty is probably what drew more towns to their cause.

The book gives exciting battles, which are really intricate and well-written, but the story focuses on the people who have romantic interests. Other characters sit on the sidelines. It is Mike and Rebecca, Jeff and Gretchen, Julie and Mackay who get the spotlight. These are strong characters, and I loved seeing the interaction between the people of the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, but I would have liked to see some characters who had relationships with people in their own town. The bonds within the town would have inevitably been strengthened by the traumatic event, but we didn't get to see that.

It would have also been nice to see how people who were not as strong responded to the event. We didn't hear about any breakdowns, or depressions. They don't have to be main characters, but Mike should have been concerned about them. We only got the story from the people who took everything in stride, and who were able to adapt. Simpson was written as the exception, but even he adapted.

Although Mike and his miners talked about getting sick after the first battle, and Melissa got sick after realizing what Gretchen's siblings thought she would do with them, the entire event is stylized, in that we even see women and children playing first aid, none of them aghast at the bodies, the smell or the fright of the sight alone. Thankfully Jeff and his friends provided some of that at the outhouse rescuing Gretchen's tribe.

The book is divided up into seven sections, each one dealing with a crisis, which makes Grantville stronger. It reminds me of Asimov's Foundation in terms of the style. Grantville deals with one army, then another, and then sits back to see some repercussions before attacking another. By the time word of this new power reaches the ears of Adolph or Cardinal Richelieu, they have more allies in the area, and are a major power, at least for the time being.

I like the way all the trades-people were used. The town is not high-tech, but they have a power-plant, a fully equipped school (complete with history books), machinists, a rocket club, and so on. They are able to manufacture cannons and presumably rifles and bullets. They even create napalm to use against the Spanish army. I didn't like the psychological warfare that they used at all, and think the chapter could have been deleted completely from the book. It was really boring, even to the reactions of everybody to "modern" music (though that was mildly amusing, as well).

I really liked the character of Gretchen. Tough as nails, willing to do everything for her family, even endure night after night of rape. When she discovers love from Jeff, who wants nothing more than to please her, it is beautiful. A real sexual awakening, for both of them, but more so for her. She didn't know that a man could be so tender. I liked Jeff's decision to marry her, and found it to be a logical thing for him as a character, to provide stability. The other sexual relationships dealt with the inter-religious mingling of Jewish Rebecca and agnostic Mike, and between cheerleader Julie and Scottish Colonel Mackay, neither of which were serious problems.

Up to the point of the enemy Tilly's death, events probably followed history well enough; Grantville is such a small place that it didn't have an immediate impact except locally. Some of the history books could probably be used to anticipate future battles. Even Gustav Adolph uses that to his advantage, accepting the new political arrangement because he reads of his death in a future battle, and of the holocaust centuries later in this area. But as the power of Grantville grew, history diverged, and as is seen in part 6, where several armies attack the city, the real European powers realize what effect this now town has had on the region. The Americans have power, and because of that, the Thirty Years War is probably foreshortened!

During the attack on Grantville, at the climax of the book, I was completely taken in by the ruse of Captain Gars, despite the obvious clues to his actual persona: the myopia, for one, and his recklessness in leading the battle personally, not to mention his recognition of Julie's handiwork with the rifle. I thought to myself that he did resemble Adolph, but never connected the two as the same person.

During that same battle, it was pure luck that Julie and Jeff stayed in town. But luck plays a larger part in battles than most people realize, I think. The setup was quick enough that it almost seemed like contrivance, but it was also believable. Perhaps we should have been a larger buildup, like other concerns about the flu, but what we were given was barely enough, and it made the entire battle very exciting. What I did think was a little contrived was Jeff stumbling upon Rebecca just as she was being attacked by the nasty Croats. The author obviously didn't think his readers would react properly to seeing Rebecca raped. In this precious country of his, nobody is hurt or raped or badly gutted -at least none of the people that we know. I really thought that Rebecca would have been a worthy sacrifice, but that probably would have pushed Mike off the deep end, and guaranteed an American Empire. I definitely didn't want to see her raped, either, but after she proved that she was a threat, she might have been killed, with Jeff arriving too late to save her, but not to save the town. Even when Ed Piazza was hit, I thought he was dead, only to be surprised to see him recover by the end. He would have also made a worthy sacrifice, to save the children.

Some of my favorite parts of the book dealt with Julie's sharp-shooting. It was amazing to see this beautiful girl, just out of high school, dealing so deadly a blow to every enemy. I was as amazed as Mackay, as Adolph, or by the end, as James with his "near-religious experience". She prided herself on her abilities, and pounded any stereotypes the natives had into the ground! I loved it!

And as for the reasoning behind throwing the town back in time? The author goes for broke here in a true SF vein: some aliens from the far future create art that is based on a technology that can do nasty things to normal matter, and they do it on a gigantic scale! Because of this, another race would exterminate them in the far far future. It's hilarious, but a perfect justification for the premise of the story! One of the artworks roamed close to Earth.

It's too bad the author intruded so often with non-objective comments. His attitudes are completely transparent, and bring the actual story down a little. It wasn't necessary, but it seems that he got a little to excited about his work! I understand that, because it is a great work. He obviously has a passion for the history of this time period, for the details were amazing, and sounded very accurate. I liked the reference to Shakespeare as being a name that was used so the theatres would not be too packed, but not being the real author. There were other references, as well, and they were funny -and possibly typical of legends like this. Who can say what was actually true four hundred years ago?

Simply for the battles and the gung-ho attitude of the characters, and to see an "evil" enemy overcome so overwhelmingly, this book is worth reading. It seems to take itself a little too seriously at times, but that is minor, because at other times, the characters realize just what they are doing, trying to make order out of the chaos around them. The characters adjusted perhaps too easily, both the Americans and the immigrating Germans and Scotsmen. However, if they hadn't, they would have certainly doomed the city, as the rival Simpson would have done if he had taken over. Regardless, the story had such potential, and most of it was realized by the end. Negotiation took over from battles, and a new country is emerging, which will reshape Europe. I would enjoy reading some sort of sequel to see where the author envisions this Europe going in a hundred years or so. For now, I will remember this book fondly.


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