FLAME RIDERS By Sean Grigsby
Angry Robot Books, e/b, £4.99
Reviewed by Matthew Johns
It’s a few years since the events of Grigsby’s last book Ash Kickers, and smoke eaters around the country have been outlawed by the New US Army (or NUSA as they’re more commonly known), with many killed or imprisoned. Smoke eaters are dragon fighters – able to breathe the smoke that dragons exhale without dying, and with some flame resistance, they fought against the dragons that have laid waste to the planet.
The legendary smoke eaters are all assumed to be dead and gone – Chief Brannigan, who gave his life to defeat a deadly phoenix, Naveena Jendal, Tamerica Williams, Afu Kekoa, Chris Renfro and the others. Now, only the corrupt NUSA remain – they torture, loot and blackmail towns for protection, taking what they want and leaving little in return. One of the latest recruits to NUSA is Guillermo Contreras, or Gilly to his family. An outcast in his platoon, he’s ridiculed and beaten by his peers, not least because of his near-encyclopaedic knowledge of dragons and smoke eaters. Having been forced to march in only his underwear through ice and snow as punishment for refusing to torture children, he finds himself suddenly the centre of rare positive attention from his platoon after he kills a dragon, saving everyone. When his droid sergeant tries to burn him alive to prove he’s a smoke eater, he almost accidentally steals a tank and destroys the sergeant, quickly becoming a fugitive from his previously and temporarily adoring platoon mates. Stopping at a small township to try to get food and directions to his home, his tank is immobilised by an EMP and surrounded by a crowd of gun-toting locals keen to strip it for parts and to kill a member of the hated NUSA. Gilly’s world is turned upside down by what he learns within this township, and he finds himself thrust into a world of adventure, surrounded by his heroes as he tries to save the smoke eaters and battle against the NUSA.
Grigsby has created a vivid post-apocalyptic world where corrupt bullies rule the roost, and the population lives in poverty and fear of not just the NUSA but also dragons and wraiths. The world will feel familiar to anyone that’s seen Mad Max, I Am Legend or any number of other similar films, but he does manage to make his world stand out through the addition of the heroic but flawed smoke eaters and their genius technologists (known as propellor heads) that supply them with gadgets and gizmos to help their battles.
He thrusts the reader into non-stop action following Gilly as he stumbles from one disaster to another, building some pathos and empathy for the characters. It’s a fun piece of easy-reading fantasy fiction to pick up and enjoy without having to think too much – just the kind of read that I like when I’m travelling anywhere. The good thing about the books is that they can stand alone, but you obviously get more out of them if you’ve read others in the series. If you like fantasy action set in post-apocalyptic worlds, then pick up one of Grigsby’s works and enjoy the ride.