Following up on a gonzo high concept is hard. Spending a lot of genre capital on the first novel of a series can mean one of two basic paths to take to try and work in the same space. In the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie, for instance, she followed Ancillary Justice with the smaller scale, much more intimate story of Ancillary Sword, which had a much smaller scope and a much more philosophical bent than its already reflective predecessor. The other major path is to up the stakes, building on the first novel but on a wider scale. This is the path that Sean Grigsby’s Ash Kickers, sequel to Smoke Eaters, takes.
Smoke Eaters, for those unfamiliar with the series premise, takes a “too old for this crap” firefighter nearly a century into the future, where the reemergence of Dragons has badly pummeled civilization as we know it. Cole Brannigan becomes a titular smoke eater, a branch of firefighters who fight back against the dragon menace. The “veteran turned rookie in a new field” is a common set-up in SFF, and gives the reader a hook into Grigsby’s world. Brannigan learns what it takes to be a smoke eater, uncovers a political conspiracy, and rises in rank by the end of the first novel, having proved himself as a leader.
Smoke Eaters is that unusual breed in genre fiction, unalloyed science fantasy. While some handwaving toward a rational basis for the dragons is made, the dragons break laws of physics by their very nature and existence. The characters don’t seem to know they are in a fantastic situation and thus try to rationalize the existence of dragons, but Grigsby has clearly gone for high-octane action-packed science fantasy of the sort that you might find in, say, Buck Rogers. Laser weapons that are perhaps unpractical or unbelievable (but pass the “rule of cool” test), ferocious draconic opponents, and a variety of set piece battles and conflicts are all written with gleefully described abandon—and sometimes, when Brannigan has to deal with real fires again, real pathos.
How does, then, Grigsby follow up on the first novel? For Ash Kickers, we shift point of view to Tamerica Williams, one of the other members of the dragon fighting unit we met in Smoke Eaters. Brannigan is still the head of the Smoke Eaters, and with his veteran leadership, the dragon menace has been tamed and tamped down to levels not seen since their (re)appearance into the world. Dealing with dragons is now almost a routine. A dangerous routine of course, but Brannigan’s reforms and advances have made an adrenaline junkie like Tamerica almost bored with her job.
That’s where the new threat to Parthenon City, Ohio comes in: The Phoenix. This shakes up Tamerica and the rest of the Smoke Eaters’ routine right away. It’s not the mere appearance of a new supernatural beast on the scene that’s the problem. There are already a dozen or more varieties of dragons, and oh yes, wraiths—the souls of dead people tied to the dragons. It’s not even just that the Phoenix is hard to permanently dispatch, with a frustrating ability to kill itself only to return again, and again. It also has a rather toxic relationship with the Dragons, making a known and containable (if still dangerous) threat into a newly dangerous one. Tamerica wanted action, and with the Phoenix’s appearance, she is going to get it. As do the readers. Fights in former football stadiums, devastating whole sections of a metropolis, running chase battles and plenty more punctuate the novel. The author likes to keep the reader turning pages and moving and so the plotting does not really linger or slow for long periods. Grigsby gives the characters just long enough to catch a breath, and then throws something new toward them.
Despite it’s breakneck pace, the novel takes some care to try and fill some gaps in the worldbuilding that I found in the first novel; not every question has been answered, but it makes more sense how Parthenon City actually can function as a city state in this devastated future. This makes the Smoke Eaters universe a little more rigorously real. Even in a world where dragons have emerged, with their violations of the square cube law and more going for them, the matter of just how the residents of Parthenon City manage to feed themselves still matters to me, but your personal reading preferences may vary.
The novel relies strongly on the voice of its protagonist Tamerica, who is unsure of what she really wants and needs at the beginning of the novel, professionally and personally. While the action beats are consistently entertaining, the scenes with her on again off again ex, also part of the Smoke Eaters, are some of the funniest in the book.
Even with a new point of view character, Ash Kickers may not serve well as a new entry point to the series. While Grigsby does a very solid job in reintroducing some of the basic concepts of the series—the dragons, the Smoke Eaters, their peculiar bond between each other, the weird science fantasy world of his late-21st century Ohio, there are a couple of key events—especially in the novel’s climax—that require familiarity with the first book, and an investment in its characters. This novel is in some ways the Empire Strikes Back to Smoke Eaters.
Unapologetic science fantasy is an uncommon subgenre, especially with a touch of pulpish sensibility. Pulpish science fantasy that appeals to modern readers’ expectations and values in terms of character representation and considerations is even more rare. Sean Grigsby’s Ash Kickers is a stronger book in every way than its predecessor, and is showcasing an emerging and growing talent.
Ash Kickers is available from Angry Robot.
Read Sean Grigbsy’s guide to fighting a Phoenix here.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).