Review: Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby

“When dragons rise from the earth, firefighters are humanity’s last line of defence, in this wild near-future fantasy.

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.”

Thanks given to Netgalley and Angry Robot for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

It didn’t take much to sell me on Smoke Eaters. I mean, dragons vs. firefighters, come on! It’s a near-future romp where dragons emerge from the earth to terrorize a fractured America, and the only line of defence are the smoke eaters (firefighters able to breathe dragon smoke who are outfitted with combat tech and laser swords).

We follow Cole Brannigan, an older firefighter who is forcefully recruited into the smoke eaters. This sets up an interesting dynamic, where a veteran firefighter – a leader – is kicked back to square one and has to deal with all that comes with that, all the while negotiating between the demands of fighting dragons and a body that’s starting to give out. It’s a novel that I immediately fell in love with, but unfortunately for me it’s also a novel I slowly fell out of love with the more I read.

This won’t be a problem for many readers, as the premise of this story is FUN and it certainly offers that in spades. But I think part of the reason I stopped enjoying the novel is because I didn’t find Cole a particularly likeable character. He’s snarky and reckless, and he chafes against authority at every turn – all of that can be great, enjoyable even, but it didn’t ring true for me with his character’s set-up. The more I got to know Cole, the less I saw him as a leader or someone to root for; instead I found myself disliking him and his actions, but perhaps I overthought things.

I think I was most interested in the dynamic of Cole as an aging veteran forced to adapt to a dangerous new role, starting at the bottom – but without wanting to spoil things too much, I felt that this was sidestepped in favour of throwing violence at every problem and meeting the situation on its own terms. Cole does bring his firefighting experience to bear (which is detailed and adds a wonderful layer to things), but I wanted to see him bring his leadership experience and smarts to being a smoke eater, finding his own way to do the job differently from the much younger characters he’s surrounded by.

I think the main storyline for the novel works well – the mystery surrounding the main antagonist’s plot fairly obvious but well-suited to the story – though the way it unfolds saps a lot of momentum from the narrative. The way to the the novel’s climax is all but paved about two thirds in, but then the characters fail to act and the suspense sadly putters out. What follows are some necessary if convenient plot developments until the finale when our heroes are forced to act (rather than seeking to end matters on their own terms earlier). It’s an odd choice, and others may find it a refreshing change of pace, but unfortunately it just didn’t work for me.

Overall, this is a read that offers a lot of fun and the dragons are well-written and wonderfully imagined. I had problems with the plot and characterisation, and I thought the pop culture references sprinkled throughout were forced and somewhat clunky, but if firefighters vs. dragons gets your blood pumping then look no further. Although I didn’t end up enjoying it as much as I wanted to, I still give Smoke Eaters three stars because I love the premise and I do think it delivers on the entertainment front.


You can learn more about Sean Grigsby here, and Smoke Eaters is available to preorder from here (released 1 March 2018).

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