The second novel in Dale Lucas’ The Fifth Ward series, Friendly Fire continues the interspecies fantasy buddy cop story that was started in First Watch. In the city of Yenara, where men, elves and dwarfs live side by side in some form of harmony, watchwardens Rem – a human – and Torval – a dwarf – are hard at work keeping the streets safe at night. When tensions start to rise between rival factions within the city, however, the watchwardens find themselves hard pressed to keep the peace and get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
It opens well with a pacy, exciting action sequence that nicely introduces both the two main characters and the city itself, setting the scene and bringing new readers up to speed. It’s clear from the off that this is a smart setting with an entertaining mixture of fantasy tropes combined into something that’s both instantly familiar and satisfyingly modern. Rem and Torval are very much the mismatched pair of cops, still settling into their partnership but with a healthy dose of respect for each other beneath the surface, and the temptation is to hope for a story that sits back and allows the two of them to shine without too much getting in the way.
As it is, things start getting a bit bogged down with the addition of some viewpoint characters who aren’t as interesting or well drawn as Rem and Torval, and a plot that’s fairly interesting, and certainly quite topical these days, but a bit heavy handed. It’s all well and good having a narrative focused on an increasingly bitter conflict between dwarfs and humans which rapidly progresses from protests to riots, then arson and premeditated murder, but it’s a bit of a tonal clash with the overall setting. As a result the story veers between a plucky buddy cop adventure, exploring the relationship between the two protagonists and their histories, and a gritty, hard-nosed, often foul-mouthed dark fantasy, neither of which quite gel.
There’s lots to enjoy here, predominantly in the exploration of Yenara, its watchwardens, and the ongoing developments in Rem and Torval’s partnership. These are fundamentally engaging characters, and they do carry the story for the most part. With a lighter story, and perhaps a little less description to try and keep the pace up and the page count (a hefty 430+) down, there’s real potential in the characters and the setting, but as it is this doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.