yeah, yeah I told you that I’d get this up last week, but writing while hacking isn’t that easy. Yes, I’m a hack writer, but that means something totally different.
by Sean Grigsby
eARC, 384 pg.
Angry Robot, 2018
Read: February 2 – 3, 2018
Really, the case for you (or anyone) reading this book is simply and convincingly made in 13 words:
Firefighters vs. Dragons in an Urban Fantasy novel set in a futuristic dystopia.
I’ll just wait here while you open another tab to put in your order. There’s really nothing more that I need to say, is there? What if I throw in robot dogs?
Since you’re here anyway, I’ll talk a little more about the book. In the early 22nd century, dragons show up (technically, come back) and everything changes over night — cities burn, non-urban areas burn, geography changes, societies change, political/governmental realities change. And so on. Where there are dragons, there’s fire; and where there’s fire, there are firefighters. A special division of firefighters soon develops — Smoke Eaters — who specialize in dragon fighting, while the rest take care of fires, saving lives and property, etc. You know, the basic everyday hero stuff.
One such hero is Captain Cole Brannigan. After decades of fighting fires, he’s a week away from retirement when disaster strikes and he finds himself without his air supply in a dragon smoke-filled room, which it turns out that he can breathe. Which means he’s one of a select few people naturally immune to the stuff and is basically pressed into service as a Smoke Eater. Instead of commanding a squad and their respect, he’s a trainee — worse, a trainee who used to be a fire fighter. I’m not really sure I get the level of antagonism that exists between the two groups, but it’s pretty intense. No one respects his expertise, his experience, his perspective. He’s tolerated at best — and that’s really only because of the whole smoke immunity thing.
I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this dynamic — stories about someone learning their way through a new reality, or new abilities, etc. are a staple of the genre. But a fully-realized adult, in a long-term, stable marriage (as stable as they can realistically come), successful already and sure of his place in the world being thrown into a new situation like this is unique. Cole spends as much time fighting his instincts about assuming leadership roles (and assuming people will follow) as he does trying to understand his new teammates and duties. Naturally, his perspective and experience will prove important to understanding a new challenge facing the Smoke Eaters.
I’m not going to get into everyone else, because this is Cole’s story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the most interesting character (he probably is, though, your mileage may vary). The rest of the characters aren’t quite as well drawn — mostly because we see everyone through Cole’s eyes — but most are close enough that you don’t notice.
I should probably mention that when he’s not writing about fire-breathing lizards, Grigsby’s an actual firefighter. So he knows his stuff — when he says fire behaves a certain way, it’s not because he’s read a lot about that or watched Backdraft a few dozen times (well, both of those may be true, but neither is the primary reason he can say that fire behaves a certain way). The authenticity about this kind of thing shines forth and adds a layer of reality to this novel. He knows guys just like Cole — and probably most of the other firefighters and Smoke Eaters — he knows the devastation that fire leaves behind (both to structures and people), and what it takes to keep pressing on in the face of that.
There is a lot more that I want to try and cover, but this is one if those books that if I said everything I wanted to, it’d take a week to write and an hour to read – so let me wrap this up (man, I didn’t even talk about Grigsby’s Canada…the book is worth a look just for that). This is full of action, and some of the ways a gentleman of Cole’s age keeps up with the action are pretty smartly conceived, but there’s some thinking involved, too. Still, you’ll be kept leaning forward in your seat. It’s a good story; with great, developed characters; a wonderful concept; all executed like a seasoned pro was behind it all. There are some little details that will make you chuckle as you read them (the misunderstandings of barely remembered 20th century culture, for example). Smoke Eaters is going to be one of the best UF reads you find this year.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the good folks over at Angry Robot via NetGalley in exchange for this post and my honest take on the book — thanks to both for their generosity and this rockin’ read.