Stirling's Dies the Fire began an alternative history trilogy with a stunning premise: in 1998, the laws of nature suffered a mysterious change: gunpowder can't explode, electrical devices don't work-in short, the last 250 years of high-tech gadgetry suddenly are useless. This sequel shows what has happened to the world since the collapse of civilization. A group of people in the Pacific Northwest have joined together to rediscover old skills; Mike Havel, leader of the Bearkillers clan, and Wiccan priestess/folksinger Juniper Mackenzie help their followers adjust to new possibilities. Nearby, however, kinky former college professor Norman Arminger is exploiting his knowledge of medieval lore to manage the Protectorate, a brutal and ruthlessly-expanding dictatorship. This middle volume of the trilogy shows skirmishes between the factions, leading up to an inevitable confrontation. Stirling's pictures of ruined cities and towns are grimly convincing, and his loving descriptions of familiar landscapes gone wild are wonderful. If the people were as freshly imagined as their world, the novel would be splendid, but even with cardboard characters, it's still an extremely readable installment in a better than average tale.