Fiction book review: Blue Fire by John Gilstrap
Blue Fire by John Gilstrap. Published March 2022 from Kensington Books.
TL;DR: A well-written, apolitical post-apoc page turner that emphasizes group dynamics more than gear or gun play. I would recommend borrowing from the library over buying. The first book in the series is available on Kindle Unlimited.
Blue Fire, the second book in John Gilstrap’s Victoria Emerson series, begins with a gun fight. Yet unlike most post-apocalyptic thrillers, the fight is not the result of a prison escape or government totalitarianism but rather a failed negotiation. And the aftermath of the brief fight features less blood and guts and more politics. As such, it sets the tone for much of what is to follow.
The Victoria Emerson series begins in Crimson Phoenix. In the opening of that book, Victoria Emerson, a Congresswoman from West Virginia, and two of her sons are awoken by a pair of soldiers tasked with escorting them from Washington, DC to a secret government bunker in preparation for an American-supported strike by Israel on Iran. When she discovers that the bunker will not accommodate her children, she refuses to enter and leaves with her reluctant military escort. The Middle East tensions trigger a wider global conflagration, including nuclear attacks on the United States, which Victoria and company weather in western Virginia. Various adventures ensue.
Blue Fire begins where Crimson Phoenix leaves off, with Victoria and her party helping lead the small town of Ortho as it weathers the challenges of life without power, external resources, or the rule of law. Secondary story lines follow her oldest son, who was away at boarding school at the time of the attack, and the members of Congress in a government bunker, including the former Speaker of the House, now reluctantly turned President.
The books deviate pleasantly from much of prepper fiction, which tends to focus on the survival of individuals and small groups. Typical stories stress individualism and are rife with male, ex-military leads with either heroic powers or startlingly good luck. Blue Fire and its prequel cast all of that aside. At its heart are two contrasting efforts to create order: one by Victoria and her allies in Ortho and another by a National Guard leader who has devolved into a de facto warlord. The characters in the book who are in the most danger are actually those who are most isolated – Victoria’s eldest son Adam and his girlfriend.
All the characters in Blue Fire read like fairly normal people. Even the military members are quite ordinary. The lead officer, Major McCrea, is most needed for his planning and organizational skills. Sergeant Copley is valued as much for his carpentry hobby as his military training. Neither are superhuman fighters. Victoria herself is both skilled and flawed: she is smart, forceful, and driven to get things done, but even her own sons are unsure if she remains in Ortho because she really wants to help or because she cannot give up her love of being in authority.
The books also get points for being very intentionally apolitical. No political parties are ever referenced by name; there is only the majority and the opposition. While the Senators and Representatives described in the book are given home districts, they are always districts that could plausibly be blue or red. No clearly Democratic or Republican political position is ever ascribed to a character. The effect is a sharp departure from the partisan politics often found in prepper fiction. Instead, there is a clear message that the real cause of ineffective government is a thoughtless focus on holding power, posturing, and scoring cheap points. I am sure that many readers will agree.
Lastly, I appreciated the books’ focus on people and skills more than gear. Far too many prepper novels focus incessantly on the names of specific guns, knives, backpacks, and boots. The worst sound like the author is regurgitating parts of a gear catalogue. There is almost none of that here. Gilstrap clearly knows enough about firearms and outdoorsmanship to describe shooting, hiking, and camping accurately. But he also knows that it does not matter much where you bought your equipment, as long as you know how to use it.
In short, Blue Fire (and Crimson Phoenix) will be appealing to a wide audience, including many people who find typical prepper fiction off-putting. But what does the book teach about prepping? My objection to books like A. American’s Going Home is not just that the incessant gear descriptions make for tedious reading. It is that the book sends the message that slogging hundreds of miles with a 50+ pound backpack loaded down with three different cooking systems is the best way to ride out the apocalypse. Other books contain may similarly miseducate the reader, by implying that you cannot survive danger without a rural farm, prior service as an Army Ranger, or a stockpile of silver coins.
On the one hand, Blue Fire’s description of the disaster that befalls America is both vague and a bit unrealistic. Nuclear war is a possibility, and maybe one that feels more salient given the current tensions with Russia. However, Gilstrap, as he explains in an author’s note at the end of Crimson Phoenix, has put aside much of the science about the effects of a nuclear exchange in order to facilitate his storytelling. In particular, the characters do surprisingly little to deal with or avoid nuclear fallout. The story is also told from the points of view of characters with limited information, sparing the author the task of detailing exactly what happened. In short, this book (and its prequel) will not provide edutainment on nuclear disasters.
Where the book really shines is in its emphasis on community and human relations. While other books may prompt the reader to ask, ‘Where will I go in a disaster?’ this one prompts the reader to ask, ‘Who will I know when I get there?’ Or while a typical story may lead you to think, ‘Do I have supplies for my family?’ this one may prompt you to reflect on what you will do with families that do not have supplies. Ultimately, survival is not just a solo activity but a community one. The book gives few readymade answers on how communities can prepare, but it nudges the reader’s thinking in a useful direction.