THE FIRE INSIDE by Raymond Rose
Christopher Williams Books, 2010, 428 pages, B0044440GS, Kindle Edition, $3.99
Superheroes are a hot commodity in the entertainment market. We see them everywhere, from the glut of summer blockbusters to the quieter trends of independent films. It’s no longer novel to marvel at these superpowered beings, to take their often ridiculous stories seriously, or to consider the human elements that would make someone take up the mantle of saviorhood. Novel or not, though, some things remain eternally interesting to public consciousness, and the idea of the superhero is one of them. Perhaps this is because, like fairy tales, hero stories are endlessly adaptable, functioning from the same basic sets of tropes and spirit, but gaining a slightly different skin with each retelling.
Raymond Rose’s The Fire Inside runs through a checklist of plot points that are all lifted straight from the Heroic Story Handbook: sorrowful origin story, finding of self through herodom, bad event that makes hero question commitment to heroics, looming threat that makes hero pull himself together, assembly of team, take down of Big Bad, and set up for future adventures. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since it makes for a story that is cohesive and easy to follow, but it’s also not the most interesting thing in the world. While I had fun reading this for the most part, everything played out predictably, offering virtually no surprises. This was really a shame considering that the initial premise, a look at the life of a retired boy wonder, is actually fairly fascinating and could have provided a lot more interesting things story and character-wise.
I’ll be the first to admit that plot and action-heavy stories are not in my wheelhouse, so perhaps it is my own preference rearing its head, but I would have liked a little less frantic action and more time spent with just the characters. As it is, some of them feel more like plot mechanisms than people. Some, like Katrina, get dropped entirely, and there are still others who could have done with a lot more fleshing out in order to make the impact of their actions land with the reader. This lack of real character development could be a symptom of the book’s structure. The Fire Inside changes narrator perspectives with such frequency that the one never really gets comfortable with a character before being tossed in media res into what someone else is doing. Sure it makes for a book where some important action happens every chapter, but it also sacrifices any sort of real novel-length tension and pulls the reader away from characters just when one has begun to bond with them.
The only character that I had any connection to was Jack. He isn’t anything out of the ordinary so far as male fantasy protagonists go, but he’s still likeable and you get a sense of who he is. I think there’s still a lot of unexplored ground with him that I would have liked to have seen, such as how his decision to get out of crime fighting truly affected him and what sort guilt he carries over from the actions of his youth, But, at the same time, I can buy that he isn’t the sort of guy who would be much into introspection, so it didn’t render him unbelievable for me. No, my lack of belief was spent on the female characters I’m afraid.
While I appreciated that there was a large cast of female characters in the story, I didn’t find any of them exactly realistic. Not only was every single one of them beautiful, from Jack’s lawyer girlfriend to the barista at his coffee shop to the villainous female Agents, but they’re all also smart, into sex, and highly competent. I know that this sounds like a bit of a contradictory complaint, but I think that even if the one dimensional traits you give an entire gender of people are kind of positive, it’s still reductive to assign singular values. It makes them less of individuals, less of people. Karen, the main female protagonist, is perhaps the best example of this sort of one dimensional perfect girl. She’s described as “beautiful” or “sexy” every single time someone notes her physical appearance (every female gets at least a paragraph apiece of description; there’s a lot less for males.) She marries Bruce, Jack’s friend and a former superhero, and gives up her life as she knew it to join him in his dangerous missions, which he trains her to kick ass at. She loves technology and beer and being naked.
These are the details that the reader gets about her. We don’t see a lot of her thought processes or feelings. She feels like someone who just didn’t exist before her husband came along and pulled her into his life. At least Jack has hints of an inner life, questions that could be explored with him; with Karen, I can’t even think of questions to ask.
Ultimately, I think that the issues I have with the book come down to my personal preferences and not anything inherently flawed in the book itself. I like more character driven works and am drawn to slower stories. The Fire Inside was like a superhero movie in book form, quick and mostly fun, but once the lights came back up, there wasn’t really any reason to linger.
Thank you to Raymond Rose for providing a review copy of this work.
Review by Amanda N.