Author: Sean Grigsby
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: March 6, 2018
Format: Kindle e-reader
Those of you who follow my blog know I’ve been busy for the past couple of months and am behind on my reviews. I’m FINALLY getting this one out even though I finished it over a month ago. For this post I’m also trying out a slightly different format to see if I like it. I’m working off of just a few notes and memory but here it goes…
I want to thank Netgalley and Angry Robot for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy of this book.
“Firefighter Cole Brannigan is on the verge of retirement after 30 years on the job, and a decade fighting dragons. But during his final fire call, he discovers he’s immune to dragon smoke. It’s such a rare power that he’s immediately conscripted into the elite dragon-fighting force known as the Smoke Eaters. Retirement cancelled, Brannigan is re-assigned as a lowly rookie, chafing under his superiors. So when he discovers a plot to take over the city’s government, he takes matters into his own hands. With hundreds of innocent civilians in the crosshairs, it’s up to Brannigan and his fellow Smoke Eaters to repel the dragon menace.”
Smoke Eaters is a thrilling science fiction/fantasy mash-up sure to whet your appetite for that page turning spring or summertime read. Full of action that blends near future scientific advancement with the legendary reptilian monsters of fantasy lore, Grigsby’s debut offers something for fans of both genres. I liken it to a fun summer action flick of a movie…er book.
I really liked the concept of Smoke Eaters. Firefighters VS. Dragons (and wraiths). If that doesn’t immediately catch your attention or even just make you curious then we can’t be friends. Well maybe we can but I’m gonna give you lots of crap about it. Anyway, a near future, somewhat post apocalyptic world where dragons have risen from fissures in the earth to wreak havoc on civilization and humanity’s only effective answer are special units of firefighters who are adapted and trained to combat this new breed of monster is definitely up my alley. And let’s add to that the mysterious presence of wraiths, robots out to take our jobs, and shady politicians, and we have ourselves the makings of some drama and conflict. Oh…and there’s Canadians being all…Canadian, which is my way of saying that like in the real world they have a worldview very different from ours south of the border…the other border. I’m dealing in generalities here so don’t @ me.
I rather enjoyed the plot. As I’ve already noted above the Earth has been ravaged by dragons crawling from below the surface of the earth. They have rampaged over the world and no nation has been spared. But they haven’t destroyed everything. Cities still exist and life goes on for people. It isn’t like the dragons can’t be defeated, they just manage to do a lot of damage before being put down. A new kind of firefighting force, the Smoke Eaters, has been established to deal with the threat. Smoke Eaters are drafted from the general public after having demonstrated certain abilities (like the ability to breath smoke without dying) and thrown into training and given specialized equipment (power suits, trucks, weaponry, etc.) that enable them to battle their scaly foe.
As the blurb above indicates, Cole Brannigan is ready to retire but gets drawn into the world of the Smoke Eaters and is all of a sudden a rookie firefighter once more. This makes for some tension and drama in his life both professionally and personally. But the dragon menace isn’t the only conflict in town. There’s also wraiths. For some reason wraiths spawn near where dragons have appeared and are nearly as dangerous. On top of that there’s a political battle being fought as well. It turns out the Mayor is out to automate parts of city government he thinks are inefficient or harmful and does so with robots which keep getting in the Smoke Eater’s way. I hesitate to say much else than this and the cover blurb above so as not to give away any more of the plot, but each thread of the plot weaves together to a thrilling end.
I should also note that there are elements where I wonder if Grigsby was influenced by the Ghostbusters and Poltergeist movies. Yes or no I made those connections in my mind and enjoyed it.
My only real complaint with the plot is the wraiths. It isn’t that I don’t like them. They’re scary and deadly. I just felt like the reason for their existence wasn’t adequately explained. Grigsby’s explanation of where the dragons come from is well done (more on that in World Building below) but I can’t say the same for the wraiths. They appear and characters offer guesses about the function they serve (for lack of a better explanation) but why they’ve shown up all of a sudden or where they come from or what produces them isn’t really dealt with. Or I just missed it somehow.
Writing And Pacing
Smoke Eaters is told from Brannigan’s first person POV. I know some people hate first person but I don’t. Grigsby’s writing style doesn’t have poetic flourishes, or deep subtle nuance to unpack. This is an action book and it’s written like one. This is perfectly fine because his writing style does what it sets out to do and doesn’t pretend to be something else.
The pacing is pretty much what you’d expect too. It starts off with action, slows down for some plot development, picks up with more dragon fighting action, slows down for more plot development, ramps up with dragons and robots, plot development, etc., right up to the end. The pacing stays pretty even throughout and doesn’t get bogged down anywhere that I can remember.
For the most part I liked the characters. The Smoke Eaters are all badass, the villains (to remain nameless for now) were what I expected, the women are tough and take no shit. It’s an action thriller filled with action oriented characters. With that however comes what some would dislike, that being there isn’t a lot of character development over the course of the novel. I’m OK with that in this case though because it isn’t meant to be a thoroughly character driven book. I don’t go to an action movie looking for in-depth character development and I don’t read a book like this looking for it either.
But there were a couple things that turned me off a little. For one Brannigan begins the novel at the end of his career as a fire Captain, a position I would assume one doesn’t attain without some level of maturity and understanding of authority. But he quickly reverts to brash, rebellious, rookie mode when he joins the Smoke Eaters. This didn’t keep me from enjoying the book but it did linger in my mind.
There was one character I didn’t like at all. Brannigan’s wife Sherry. She goes through most of the story pissed that he’s not really retiring. That I get. Makes sense. Firefighting is a dangerous job and she’s been waiting for the day he will come home for good. There’s even a great little scene involving a baseball when he tells her he isn’t. But quickly she just comes off as a very selfish, ball busting nag, and then she’s painted as being very naïve. But Brannigan’s love for her is an important element of the plot and drives a portion of the story. I just didn’t like her. I’m hoping this isn’t me just being a male ass. Let me know what you think.
Smoke Eaters is set in a near future Earth so Grigsby didn’t have to do tons of world building, it’s already here. There’s some technological advancements to play out and they were done well. These include power suits, weaponry, vehicles, and the like. It isn’t hard sci-fi so there isn’t much explanation behind the science but that would just be a turn-off in a book of this sort where the plot needs to keep rolling forward without being bogged down in the technical aspects.
The biggest problem Grigsby had to overcome is how to explain the dragons. Where did they come from? How’d they get here? If they’ve always been here where have they been hiding? Why haven’t they shown themselves before? Since he chose for them to come from fissures in the ground after earthquakes occurred they can’t be explained away as dropping in from outer space. Before sitting down to read the book this was the aspect I knew he’d have to sell me on the most. I’m not going to give away the explanation(s) provided but Grigsby manages to weave together myth and legend about dragons from humanity’s past, including examples from cultures around the world from Europe, Asia, and North America in a plausible somewhat scientific (it’s fantasy remember) way that leave you saying, “OK I can buy that” while still leaving the door open for unexplained mystery.
So all-in-all the world building was good and I really had no issues with it.
I really enjoyed Smoke Eaters. The few complaints I had didn’t really hinder the read for me. There’s action, humor, and if I didn’t mention it before, DRAGONS…and wraiths…and robots. It’s great for a summer read at the beach or wherever you might take your vacation. Hell it’d probably be great in the fall next to a fire but something about it screams spring/summer to me. I’ve said it a few times already and will repeat it again, Smoke Eaters reminded me a lot of an action movie and I rated it keeping that in mind and whether it accomplished what it set out to do. If you go into it expecting something else you may be disappointed. But if you dive in expecting just that I think you’ll enjoy it. Anyhow I recommend you check it out.
When I tallied by numbers my rating came to a 3.8 or 3.9 and I round to the nearest half point, so…