As far as the general populace is concerned, the EMP comes completely unexpectedly. And it's not that dramatic: The power goes out. Vehicle engines stop and the cars come to a stop. Cell phones stop working. It's an inconvenience to most; travelers are stuck on the Interstate, nobody can call home.
Of course, when a few days go by and there is still no power and no contact with the rest of the world, it's much more than inconvenience. The story follows the breakdown of the things we take for granted: That our fire trucks will run. That food will fill the grocery shelves. That we can get the medicines we need. That our pacemakers and insulin pumps will work and that dialysis will be available when we need it. That people will show up to take care of our loved ones at the nursing home. (This one hit me hard.) That one way or another we can feed our children. That people are basically good and will look out for one another.
Before long, people are dying, from illnesses that were easy to manage with medication and regular care; food is starting to run short, and people are scared.
If you think you're pretty good at handling crisis, that you're pretty independent and self sufficient, try reading this book and see if you still think so.
My friend recommended the book to me after a discussion we had about emergency preparedness. I had said to her that I hoped I would never get so desperate that I would not be willing to share with a hungry neighbor. I guess I wasn't thinking so far as that I'd be willing to share with just anyone, neighbor or not. She asked me, if it meant my child starving, and I knew it, would I share? What if that someone took the food away from me and my child, rather than sharing? Or what if it was a neighbor in need, but someone I knew had never been careful with anything in his or her life, rather had depended on people fixing things for him or her at every turn? Would I still feel the same? We also talked about home defense. I said I couldn't see myself taking up arms against fellow Americans, and she said this book might change my opinion on that. And yes, it did. The people of Black Mountain eventually do organize and band together to take care of each other, but that means they are a nice juicy target for the ruthless and lawless, who are better organized. Black Mountain must take up arms for very survival.
The book has given me a lot to think about. We have no formal emergency preparedness plan for New Albin. We need one. God willing, we'll never have to use it. But we have a lot of retired people in this town. We have a lot of little kids. A lot of medically fragile people. Our demographics are really skewed. We are not typical. We need to have some basic things in mind in case something were to happen and help could not get to us for a few days, or weeks. Or months. It never hurts to plan.
With that said, I have to say that this book reads as though the second draft accidentally went straight to the publisher. I don't know who is Forstchen's editor, but evidently that person was having a bad week/month/year. Forstchen does not write dialogue well at all. Part of the problem is that his characters are about a half a centimeter deep. Blow on them and they will fall right over. And then when he makes them talk to one another, they get even thinner. So that's part of the problem. Poor characterization, stupid dialogue. On top of that, you have just plain bad proofreading and wonky punctuation. I found it very distracting. I almost got a pencil to make edits. (I've done that. I really have. It usually makes me feel better. I didn't go quite that far this time.) As an example, if you are writing dialogue, and one character is monologuing, and it runs to more than one paragraph, you don't put a closed quote at the end of each paragraph, you just use open quotes at the beginning of new paragraphs to remind the reader that the character is still talking, and when the character finally wraps up whatever it is he's trying to say, you close THAT paragraph with closed quotes. Sorta obvious. Didn't happen in this book. At least not consistently. I was already mad at the irritating conversations these paper people were having and then, having a problem figuring out which one was saying what, on top of that? Grrr.
And there was other stuff that should have been caught by somebody even if Forstchen didn't. Here's an example: In one scene, the main character is talking to his daughter, who is lying on a sofa. She's kind of mad at him. Here's the scene, minus things that would spoil the story for you:
Jennifer turned away, features pale.
"You're lying, Daddy. You never could lie to me."
"No, honey. It's the truth. [Spoiler redacted.]"
She said nothing, just looking at him.
"Sweetie, would you like me to read to you?"
Head turned away, she nodded.
See the problem? Where the heck is Jennifer looking? Her head is turned away, yet she's looking at him. Maybe there's a mirror in the room. Maybe she has eyes in the back of her head.
Anyway, this sort of stuff is all through the book and I find it distracting. It's easy to make these mistakes when you're writing because you get too close your words, but that's the editor's job, among other things, to notice stuff like that and bring it to the author's attention to be fixed.
So, final point: I recommend the story as an eye-opening though scary read, and I hereby ask for a job as a copy editor at Tor/Forge. (Seriously, I would so love to work for those people. I'm totally unqualified, though.)