A truly great action-adventure story requires balance. Sean Grigsby’s debut fantasy Smoke Eaters scales that precarious ladder with ease, with style and at a breakneck pace, more than living up to that irresistible premise: what if there were a group of uniquely skilled firefighters trained to battle swarms of ferocious, flame-breathing dragons? It evokes the structure of a classic action movie, with cinematic combat sequences, a vast variety of threats for our heroes to fight, and plenty of interesting tech for them to do it with. It all adds up to an explosive debut.
In the world of 2120, dragons have suddenly reappeared out of the fog of myth to ravage the world. Cole Brannigan has spent 10 years fighting the fires the “scalies” unleash across the city-state of Parthenon City, and he is finally ready to hang it up and take a well-earned rest from breathing in smoke and dodging scaly monsters and the wailing electromagnetic wraiths that appear in their wake. But one week away from retirement (naturally), a disastrous call to a structure fire wipes out most of his crew and reveals Brannigan has the rare ability to breathe dragon smoke, which is usually lethal to humans. Brannigan is forcibly conscripted into the Smoke Eaters, an elite force that fights dragons with powered armor and high-tech weapons. Between the sinister, strangely aggressive robots the city-state plans to use for public safety, a colossal three-headed dragon known as “The Behemoth,” and sudden increase in dragon and wraith activity, Brannigan and his new teammates have their work cut out for them.
There’s a certain verticality to the fight scenes that helps elevate (literally) the action to new heights. Given the variety of dragons the Smoke Eaters face, from burrowing wyrms that pop out of the ground to flying behemoths that engage in midair battles, the set pieces are unique and dynamic throughout, with firefighters and monsters alike attacking from above, below, and even across multiple elevations and terrains. The fights take the “Smokies” from the rooftops to underground nests within a single scene, making for one epic, over-the-top chase after another. Like a great director, Grigsby is able to write chaotic scenes without losing track of the action.
An early fight sees dragons popping out of the ground, and the Smoke Eaters forced to use the terrain around them to fight back. Then there’s a vehicle chase using roof-mounted laser cannons, then desperate pitched battle against electromagnetic ghosts, then a chase involving a psionically powered wheelchair. If this sounds like a lot of action and no substance, well, it is and it isn’t. The pace never flags, as each new scene adds more twists and turns to the plot while building a world in the background, exploring the weird symbiosis between the dragons and wraiths or serving to show off more of what the Smokies have at their disposal.
Smoke Eaters is an example of what an action-adventure fantasy novel should be— imaginative and kinetic, with weapons cool enough to spark your imagination without collapsing into technobabble and gear porn, and increasingly over-the-top fantastical elements that only add to the fun. For a book that promises dragon-fighting firefighters, it certainly delivers.