Fire with Fire by Charles Gannon
I didn’t post about it in January, but my New Year’s resolution was to DNF more books. (DNF is book-blogger slang for Did Not Finish.) Since I became a book blogger, I’ve DNFed very little, but I’m frustrated by the low average quality of my reading material, and I want to free up my time to read things I’ll enjoy. It’s possible I’m now going overboard with DNFs, as I’ve DNFed the last three science-fiction novels I started reading.
I thought about DNFing “Fire with Fire” (audiobook version) multiple times, and finally stopped listening somewhere well before the 50% mark. I’ve read a non-fiction book and another science fiction book since, and I still have no desire to go back to “Fire with Fire”. This probably means I should return it for a refund, but I’ll see if anyone leaves me a comment that changes my mind.
I’ll start with some minor annoyances, then lay out what I think is really behind my frustration with this book.
The main character is an investigative reporter, who apparently gets too close to some kind of secret op on the moonbase and is knocked out by some Taiwanese commandos (working for a multinational intelligence organization) who stuff him in a cryopod. He’s thawed out thirteen years later, with some of his memories erased. The intel guys tell him the thing he was going to uncover became public shortly after his freezing, but they kept him frozen to cover up freezing a journalist. Then, they tell him they want him to go on an extremely dangerous spy mission for them. He says OK, and starts working for them, doing everything he can to help their organization succeed.
Now, I’m notoriously bad at understanding human behavior, to the point that NASA could probably use me to learn what aliens might think about human behavior, but here are my top three guesses as to what someone would do in the frozen man’s shoes:
- Lose his temper and try to kill everyone in the room. Extra motivation: the guy’s parents died while he was frozen.
- Pretend to go along with training, until he could figure out how to kill everyone even tangentially associated with the intelligence organization.
- Pretend to go along with the actual mission, until he could find an enemy counter-intelligence operative and sell everything he knew about the intelligence organization, hopefully facilitating #2.
Once Frozen Guy gets to training, the two heads of the intel org keep taking turns telling each other how wonderful Frozen Guy is. It turns out Frozen Guy is a big-time Gary Stu. Here’s a transcript I managed to sneak out of the intel org’s HQ:
“I think he’s wonderful.”
“I think he’s more wonderful than you do.”
“Nuh-uh, I think he’s the wonderfulest.”
OK, everything above doesn’t make for a great story, but I could probably cowboy up, soldier on, and Indian-chief my way through it. What? Indian-chiefing isn’t an expression? I guess I thought we were doing a Village People thing.
Anyway, what I really can’t deal with in this book is a writing style that:
- Treats the reader like he/she has brain damage.
- Breaks the flow of the story.
I’ve been seeing this style from a lot of indie authors lately, but this is the first traditionally-published novel that I remember seeing it in. I’ve mentioned it before in my review of a novel by Evan Currie, and I think it may have been present in the two books I DNFed before this one.
I listened to the novel while driving, so I don’t have quotes, but here’s my impression of the writing style, during a scene where a character is fleeing armed hijackers in a spaceship’s engine room:
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a toolbox. The toolbox would probably have tools inside it. The crew would need tools to maintain the ship’s engines. Without engine maintenance, the engines might stop running, and then the ship wouldn’t be able to reach its destination.
Meanwhile, I’m driving, yelling at my car’s speakers, “STFU! Toolbox! All you had to say was toolbox! I know what a #%*(# toolbox is for! Wasn’t someone chasing you with a gun? STFU!”
UPDATE: I decided to listen to another scene so I could write about this in less vague terms. I still can’t do quotes, but I can give some slightly more concrete examples. I’m also wondering if the audio format makes this writing style more noticeable. Would a visual reader be able to skim past this sort of thing without noticing it?
I listened to a scene where Frozen Guy and another good-guy character had been in a car wreck. They flag down an approaching vehicle, only to learn that it is filled with bad-guy shooters.
First, the other good guy (technically a good gal, I guess) waves at the approaching vehicle. The author describes her arm motions, starting wide, crossing, going wide again. Sure, that’s a reasonable way to wave, but why do I have to listen to the description? The author could just say the character waved. So what if I imagine a different arm motion? It doesn’t affect the story.
Then, the good guys jump the bad guys who are trying to get out of the vehicle. Frozen Guy is fighting on one side of the vehicle, hears fighting on the other side, and has to think to himself, “oh, that’s probably good gal fighting over there.” Thanks, Captain Obvious, I’m glad you told me that. Now I don’t have to wonder whether a minotaur wandered out of the woods and started a fight.
Then, one of the bad guys drops his pistol, and the author has to tell me that it’s five feet from something, where it is in relation to the wheel well, etc. etc.. It might be relevant to say it’s easily within someone’s reach, or just out of reach, or hopelessly out of reach, but all the specific placement info wasn’t interesting to me.
I’ve heard that there’s some interesting stuff with aliens later in this novel, but I don’t think I can hang in there. Bigger picture, I’ve now identified a writing style I don’t want to read in other books, but I don’t know how to identify it up-front. It’s not like there’s a sub-genre called “Ponderous Over-Explaining”. If I were smart, I’d coin a catchy phrase for this style, become famous among book reviewers for being so clever, then avoid bad books by searching book reviews for that phrase.
On another front, my attempt to rank publishers may not have been useful. “Fire with Fire” was published by Baen, the top publisher in my ranking. “Kings of the Wyld“, which I nominated as my favorite read of 2017, was published by Orbit, my lowest-ranked publisher. Orbit also published “Jade City“, which I enjoyed, although its marketing was intentionally misleading.
I know a couple of other bloggers, at Every Day Should Be Tuesday and Bookstooge’s Reviews on the Road, made it through this book, and ended up giving it 3.5 stars, so maybe it gets better towards the end. If you’ve read it, drop a comment below.
Really enjoyed this post and your Village People reference! Indian Chiefing could become a thing.
I predict a lot of Indian-Chiefing in my future.
I sometimes call it telegraphic description, which I guess is similar to blow-by-blow descriptions, and it’s pretty common in starting or amateur writers: if some character opens a door, this kind of writer will tell you that he placed the hand on the knob, clutched it, and then turned it.
By the way, you are cursed now, you have noticed it and now you will see it everywhere.
Is there an old gypsy woman I can see about this curse?
There is a positive side to really bad books, and it’s the possibility of reading your snarky reviews of them! 😀
This one does indeed have everything against it: a confused plot, a main character whose motivations elude me (and he’s a Gary Stu to boot!), and truly terrible writing. The only reason I can find for the word-bloat is that the author was being paid by word count…
Thank you so much for sharing this!
Authors are under pressure to write longer and longer books, but they usually accomplish this with sub-plots, often involving less-important events or less-interesting characters.
Bad writing style is more than enough reason to not finish a book. You wouldn’t buy a painting if you thought it was hideous. No reason to read a book if the writer has made a poor go of it to your eyes.
Hard to argue with that.
Ahoy there matey! I too am trying to abandon ship (i.e. DNF to landlubbers) more this year. I don’t like doing it but I don’t have enough time to read as it is and so something has to give. I will certainly be skipping this book. I do find reviews of DNF books to be fascinating. I like to know the reasons why a book didn’t work for that specific reader. It won’t necessarily stop me from reading a book but if it lists specific pet peeves then I be glad to skip it and save some time. Lovely post.
x The Captain
I have a natural reluctance to DNF a book, then blog about it, because I think to myself “what if there’s some amazing wrap-up at the end that explains all this nonsense?”
I can’t envision any ending that would explain away my problems with this book, and no ending could erase the writing style, of course.
“I’m also wondering if the audio format makes this writing style more noticeable. Would a visual reader be able to skim past this sort of thing without noticing it?”
I would say yes. As you noted, I thought this book was pretty meh. Basically, I have all the same complaints as you, but there is a lot of cool stuff in there. I was surprised at how long the book is when I finished it (I read it on my Kindle). I think it was the longest book I read last year. When you’re reading description-heavy prose is easy to breeze past.
But at least now you know that being a polymath is the greatest superpower of all.
Maybe I’d have made it through, if I’d been reading instead of listening.
It’s a mystery why nations continue to spend billions on national defense, when a handful of polymaths could do the job at a fraction of the cost.
To be fair, I’ve never read another book by Gannon since nor do I plan to…
And I fully support and ENABLE more dnf’ing. I should probably take my own advice though…
With three DNFs in a row, I was worried I’d never finish a book again. I went back to my comfort series to finally finish one, and I’ll have to see what happens after that.
You I voted those who read it to comment. I didn’t, but here I am anyway. This post should be required reading for authors.
A number of self-pub authors I’ve read could stand to take a step back and look for this. I wonder at this one, coming out of a professional publisher. I guess the editors didn’t want to mess with the author’s writing style.
No idea. Even editors are human and can have an off day. My earlier works were not as tight as my current stuff, but I could not get where I am today without writing those stories. I like to imagine how much better they’ll be in five more years of writing.
I have a tough time DNFing books. I kind of feel like, if I paid money for this book, I should try to finish it. Otherwise, I feel like I’ve wasted my money, you know?
I may still be able to return this one for a refund. Even if I had to eat the cost, though, I’m only 7 hours into a 19 hour audiobook, and I figure those 12 hours of my time are more valuable than what I paid for the book.
Yeah, that’s what I tell myself those times when I do give up on a book. It’s still kind of hard for me, though.
Perhaps it’s a guilty pleasure, but funny DNF reviews are often more fun to read than complimentary reviews.
Maybe I should write some more of them. Too bad I didn’t jot down any notes about my previous DNFs.