You know what we don’t talk a lot about in this column? Romantic suspense. That’s because I often read before bed, and thrillers give me nightmares. But that’s not a good enough reason to deny you exposure to one of the most popular subgenres in romance, so I picked up Flash Fire. It won the 2016 Romantic Suspense RITA Award (which is like the Man Booker if it were awarded for work in specific romance subgenres), so I figured it had to be good. And it was good. It was also super violent, a bunch of people got killed, and I will be billing my coffee and Xanax for the week to BYT.
Type: As mentioned above, Flash Fire is romantic suspense. Based on the title, you might think it’s about firefighters or dragons. Good guess – you’re obviously learning your romance novel title puns! – but it’s not about either. Don’t worry, though. We’ll get to firefighters and dragons next month.
The couple: Light Walker is a Navy SEAL turned angry vigilante. His survivalist genius fits nicely with his kamikaze mission of destroying Mexican drug cartels. Walker’s murderous vengeance gets interrupted when he gets called to be a local contact for a Clara Roberts, a Department of Defense investigator who recovers kidnapped US citizens. We are told upfront by both characters that Clara’s not conventionally physically attractive, but she’s a badass and an incredibly quick draw, and that actually seems to be the more important set of qualities given the circumstances. Also, she has eyes the color of gunmetal, which we know because Walker refers to them that way so many times, it seems it might be the only color he knows. In fairness, if there were a Crayola box for slightly deranged former sailors with a savior complex, it would probably consist entirely of gunmetal grey, navy blue, and jungle green, so Walker’s color wheel is likely a bit limited.
The story: Clara, who has an exceptional record for recovering victims of international kidnapping, is given an unofficial assignment to find a kidnapped teenager who’s awkwardly connected to her family. Her boss connects her with a local facilitator, who she assumes will be something of a hippy travel guide. Turns out, her guide is the savvy yet terrifying pile of muscle and tattoos that is Light Walker. It’s a hilarious misunderstanding right up through the moment when he disembowels a local thug. After that, they run through the jungle. Then they go to the bordello where Walker lives. Then it’s back to the jungle. Then a drug lair, then jungle again, drug lair, bordello, at one point there’s a missionary, then back to a drug lair, and so on and so on.
How’s the sex? Good god, what is wrong with you? These people are trying to cripple the drug trade and recover victims of kidnapping, and you think they have time for sex? They’re pretty busy saving the world, so maybe you should try to refocus on priorities.
But seriously, though – don’t buy this book for the sex. There is almost none. The tremendous amount of lust is held at bay by reality and time constraints. For what it’s worth, it’s sexier than “time constraints” make it sound.
Is this book for you? Do you have a higher tolerance for late night stories about violent murder than I do? Just kidding (mostly). In terms of violence, Flash Fire is a PG-13 book – it’s violent, but not graphically so. Also, author Dana Marton uses violence in the way that many romance authors use sex – to advance her story.
I should note: I have very, very little understanding of the drug and human trafficking situation in Mexico, so I have no idea whether or not those pieces of the plot are fairly represented. But I do know enough about the romance novel genre to know what Marton does right. For one, Clara saves herself on more than one occasion. Yes, once or twice she needs Walker. But once or twice, Walker needs her too. Clara’s a badass without being superhuman, and she’s smart enough to know when she has to walk away from Walker regardless of her feelings for him.
Also, everyone – including Clara – knows that she’s not pin-up girl gorgeous. That’s kind of great, because when Walker does eventually fall for her (about 36 hours after meeting her), we know it’s not just because she’s a would-be Victoria’s Secret model who knows where to point her 9mm. I also appreciate that the story keeps a wry humor in the even the most intense, anxiety-inducing scenes. When type-A Clara is (spoiler alert I guess) having a hard time distracting the single-minded psycho who plans to violently murder her, Marton expresses Clara’s exasperation in a tongue-in-cheek way: “Normally, Clara appreciated goal-oriented people. This one time was the exception.”
Conclusion: Flash Fire is a good story, an engaging read, and a great use of a fantastic heroine. Plus, if nothing else, you get some great murderous vigilante tips in this book: use parachute cord for shoe laces because it’s super versatile, cut holes in your shoes above the soles to prevent swamp feet when you’re stuck in the jungle and it’s raining, always carry some C-4 on your person if you’re involved with drug cartels, etc, etc. Flash Fire is part romance novel, part adventure handbook, and the combination is worth having to sleep with a nightlight on.