Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon
I don’t read a lot of military science fiction, and Fire With Fire is definitely military SF. It’s also an intelligence thriller and a first-contact story, at least part of the time. Charles E. Gannon’s book was good fun, but could have been forty pages shorter (limiting the verbiage of the talking heads) without losing anything, and the main character was a problem.
Caine Riordan, the hero of Fire with Fire, is a little like Jack Ryan from the old Tom Clancy books. Riordan is not a military guy; he’s an analyst, and a writer, or both. He likes to roll up his sleeves and get hands-on, though, so he has a lot of varied experiences. He’s a polymath; educated in a number of areas. Riordan is uniquely without attachments; thirteen years earlier, Riordan uncovered a top secret military operation on Earth’s moon, and was cryogenically suspended. His parents died during that time and as far as we know, Riordan has no siblings, cousins or significant others. Now he’s been thawed out and earmarked for a clandestine mission on a “green” (habitable-by-humans) planet that’s being mined by a powerful global corporation. Riordan is given some crash-training in how to be a commando, which he learns instantly, and sent off to Delta Pavonis Three. His discoveries there coincide with an event that changes humanity’s understanding of the universe completely, as Riordan is tapped to be part of a select group of international diplomats who will meet with “exo-sapients” (extra-terrestrials) for the first time.
In the meantime, Riordan dodges attempts on his life and kvetches to his intelligence handler, Downing, about the one hundred hours of memory that are missing from the period immediately before he was unfairly cryo-celled thirteen years previously. Downing and the military leader, Admiral Corcoran, worry about the evil corporation’s tentacles and how far they have reached out, and a shadowy assassin uses magical means — oh, no, sorry — uses super-duper-scientifically-arcane-not-magical-at-all means to try to kill Riordan, who somehow, also not magically, intuits and thwarts every attempt against his life.
With a couple of baffling exceptions, the action sequences in Fire with Fire are great. The tech is interesting and the aliens are fun. Early in the book, there is a scene where Riordan is menaced by the Pavonis Three apex predator. This scene is breath-catching. Later, though, in several scenes, the action slows down as we wade through some pretty thick exposition. Sometimes the scenes just don’t work. In one sequence in particular, in a future where cars drive themselves and we’ve achieved interstellar travel, Riordan’s gorgeous kick-ass bodyguard, Opal, digs out a paper map, which then blows out the car’s open window. Why a paper map and not GPS? The paper map is needed, obviously, so that Riordan and Opal, chasing it, have to move the car to the one place on the road that does not have surveillance. That’s a bit clunky.
I enjoyed Fire with Fire but two things marred that enjoyment. The first was the length, and specifically the amount of lecturing characters do to each other. The second problem was more serious. I didn’t completely understand the mechanics of a “Mary Sue,” or in this case, a “Gary Stu” character until I met Caine Riordan. I assumed that Mary Sues were just perfect — which Riordan is, Perfectly Awesome. It’s not enough that somehow being a polymath makes him an instant expert on everything, even things he’s only seen for the first time about ten seconds earlier. It’s not enough that every woman, even the married lesbian ambassador, swoons over him (she doesn’t swoon sexually, she just admires him tremendously). No. That’s not enough. After a presentation at the world group that succeeds the United Nations, Riordan is approached by the Premiere of China, who says, “Mr. Riordan, you have much skill at the diplomatic table for one so young and so unaccustomed to it.” (I swear, I kept hearing Bela Lugosi saying, “You are very wise, Van Helsing, for a man who has only lived one lifetime.”) Riordan’s military bodyguard, Opal, thinks he is so hot that she contemplates committing insubordination for him. Although Riordan hasn’t logged much military field time, he almost instantly achieves a brothers-in-arms bonding with the Navy SEAL character. The exo-sapients flock to him, knowing that Riordan, rather than the designated Earth ambassador, speaks for all humanity. At one point, Riordan clears his throat and every head turns, all gazes converge upon him, as every character waits for his wisdom. It’s just too much. An intelligent, capable character who emerges through behavior as a natural leader is one thing, and making your character Perfectly Awesome is another. It was distracting, irritating and unintentionally funny. I hope, as this series continues, that Riordan clambers down off his pedestal and becomes something of a plausible person.
That leads me to a quibble about this otherwise engaging adventure; while there is a plot and certain things are resolved, Fire with Fire is the first book of a series and seems mostly about setting the stage for the coming conflict.
Gannon’s writing is smooth and accessible, and the world view is interesting if a bit familiar. Character problems aside, Fire with Fire is a good adventure book and provides a nice foundation for inter-system conflict in upcoming volumes.
I listened to the audio version and had the same experience that Marion did. The over-the-top awesomeness of Caine Riordan was too much. He’s too smart, too competent, all his guesses turn out to be right. It’s a good story and the writing style is appealing, but this book was too long.
An excellent review, Marion, especially useful because this book is on my TBR pile. Thanks!
Rating – 4/5