Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby

Publisher - Angry Robot

Published - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback/£6.99 e-book

I am grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

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 cross hairs, it’s up to Brannigan and his fellow Smoke Eaters to repel the dragon menace.

As the vampire Angel once remarked it’s often a hero’s ambition to kill the dragon. Our fire-breathing frenemies have been part of our culture for hundreds of years (perhaps even longer) and from Smaug to Pern they have a long legacy in the genre. Sean Grigsby has used the concept of dragons to create a curious blend of science fiction and fantasy with fire-fighters now replacing the knight in shining armour!

In this world a century or so in the future a series of catastrophic earthquakes led to the release of dragons. In this case they are fire-breathing, non-flying; occasionally EMP-emitting and dangerous beasts that lurk underground laying eggs and then erupting from homes consume all they find. Rather than just give us the apocalypse Grigsby gives us the more interesting question how do we then survive it? It’s a world of ash-strewn wastelands where dogs have vanished, travel has been replaced with holograms and fire-fighters are slowly being replaced with technology. Into this mix we find Cole Brannigan who has the traditional action movie curse of being a few days from retirement. A dragon attack that wipes out a fire crew which he only just escapes leads to a discovery that as he can breathe dragon smoke means he can now join the secretive Smoke Eaters a government agency exclusively focused on dragon hunting wielding laser swords and shields. Against them; a mayor keen to build walls and blame the emergency services for the natural disasters now faced; I wonder how he wears his hair…

It’s one of the most original concepts I’ve read in a while and there has been a lot of thought into the world that Brannigan lives in. It feels like a century in the future with robotic dogs, holo-readers but still has aspects of the current world in it. There is a touch of Pacific Rim in how the world is trying to work out what types of dragons are now alive and studying them to finds weapons and solutions to something that could destroy the world. However, while a lesser author may try to just info-dump the world into existence it was pleasing that Grigsby really paces the explanation of the world nicely throughout the novel. Often surprising directions are taken such as mysterious electric Wraiths haunting and murdering on the site of dragon attacks and wait until you see what happened to Canada!

This is helped by a really-well balanced cast of Smoke Eaters, not just the refreshing older experienced veteran Brannigan applying his experiences to the new organisation he is part of but a refreshingly diverse set of characters where women are not immediately deemed love interests. There is a touch of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in terms of approach to the generation gaps (with both an implicit and explicit nod!) and Grigsby has a touch of Scalzi’s ear for dialogue that while witty and moves the plot along at pace also sounds right for the cast.

My reservation though is that the plot for the story does however tend to go for the obvious. I think a regular reader/view of the genre can quickly identify the villain and while Brannigan is a lead character you want to side yourself with due to his humour and humanity he also seemed to lack much of a learning curve. He rather too quickly gets to grips with the world and technology that he was a few weeks ago unaware of and perhaps makes too many 50/50 calls that are proved right. I do wonder if this is possibly more as a way of introducing the wider world and there are hints of a bigger story and perhaps an enemy that really would make an interesting battle in the future.  I would love to see that original eye used for world building used now applied to making different types of stories we have not seen before.

So overall, I think Sean Grigsby has made a very promising debut with a unique concept combined with engaging characters and action. While it’s perhaps not going to provide too many surprises for regular genre readers I think for any reader who wants a fun, unique and importantly well-told story then I don’t think you can go wrong curling up on the sofa with this book in front of a nice warm dragon-induced fire.