Firestorm by Rachel Grant, narrated by Greg Tremblay

A lightning storm lights up a dark jungle scene. The colours are purple, blue and black with pink lightning. Why I read it:  I received a review copy via the author. I was so excited to listen I immediately bumped it up the queue.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  CIA covert operator Savannah James is after intel on a potential coup in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she needs a partner fluent in Lingala to infiltrate the organization. Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan is the perfect choice, except he doesn’t like her very much. He doesn’t trust her, either, despite the sparks that flare between them, fierce and hot. Still, he accepts the assignment even though their cover requires Savvy to pose as his mistress.

They enter battle-worn Congo to expose the financing for the coup. A trail of cobalt, gold, and diamonds leads them into the heart of a jungle in which everyone is desperate to find the mother lode of ore and gems. Betrayal stalks them as they follow the money, but Savvy will stop at nothing to bring down the would-be dictator before he can ignite a firestorm that will engulf all of Africa.

Deep in the sultry rainforest, spy and Green Beret forge a relationship more precious than diamonds, but Cal knows Savvy is willing to sacrifice anything—or anyone—to complete her mission. As they near the flashpoint, Cal will have to save her from the greatest threat of all: herself.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  The short answer to the question of “what worked for me” is “pretty much everything”.  Firestorm is a cracking good listen, with excellent narration and smart, consistent characters and a thrilling story. I do think Firestorm works better in the context of the whole series but it’s not essential.

The blurb tells listeners what they need to know so I don’t want to spend time rehashing the plot. There are plenty of excellent reviews which do that already (here’s one). TW: Listeners should be aware that there is some difficult subject matter involving sexual assault and sexual and other forms of slavery and harm to children, which could be triggering.

I decided to talk about other aspects of the book to do something a bit different. It was something a lot on my mind as I’ve been considering diversity and representation in romance lately. I don’t assert I’m an expert however (after all, I’m a white middle-class Australian) and as always, I’m happy to listen to other voices who have a stake in the subject matter. While I do think that some stories are best left for authors of colour to tell, my starting point is that I don’t subscribe to the view that white authors should never ever write books set in nonwhite countries.  I also believe that if a white author is going to set a book in a nonwhite country (and/or featuring nonwhite characters) then that author should do careful research and be sensitive to the representation they are presenting.

The entire Flashpoint series is substantially set in Africa – in Djibouti, in South Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), among others. The villains in the books are not just black people however. In fact, without giving too much away, while people take a lion’s share of the villainy in the series. There are both Russian and American connections explored and in Firestorm, colonialism is specifically addressed and the damage it did to the DRC is one of the things canvassed in the book. The sexual violence and violence to children isn’t exclusively done by black people. There isn’t a particular brand of villain who is only black. I haven’t done a forensic count but my impression was that the white bad guys outnumber the black and brown ones.

And there is also plenty of representation of black and brown people in the series on “team good” as well. The people of the various countries in Africa in which the stories are set are respected and portrayed are as various and non-monolithic as anyone else. Particularly African women and children are highlighted – their plights in war-torn countries, their resilience, their challenges, how so many have failed them, but also their successes and brilliance, their resourcefulness and their self-determination. I didn’t pick up a patronising tone to the series. African people aren’t treated like they are helpless to help themselves and need America to come and save them.

I suppose it could be said that there is at least a little of the white savior trope in the previous two books. The hero in Catalyst is part Native American and so, not completely white, but the US Green Berets do tend to save the day. In some ways the same is true in Firestorm. However, what balances that out somewhat is that the reason anyone needs saving in the first place is because of actions taken by and activities of other white people (mostly Russians and Americans) and the problems, conflicts and challenges canvassed in the books are not ever presented as being ones that the local population has brought on themselves. Added to that, there are also heroic local characters; there are many examples of them saving the day and/or being pivotal to things working out.

It was clear to me the author has a deep affection for the African continent and the people and countries therein. There is an inherent respect to the way the stories are written and the way the various locally born characters are depicted. I know, because I asked the author, that Mr. Grant worked in Djibouti and on a couple of occasions and his experience formed part of the research for the series.

In Firestorm, the author goes one step further. Cal is American by birth but by heritage he is half Congolese (through his mother). He has a deep connection to the DRC and a personal stake in the outcome of any conflict involving the DRC. He has family there. He has spent time there with his mother. When Cal talks of the people of the DRC it is with the affinity of shared heritage and significant relationship. Cal does have a drunk uncle which gets a mention – but it is also mentioned that he’s his dad’s brother (and hence, white). I noticed those little push backs and appreciated them.

Cal recognises and talks about the problems in the DRC, largely the legacy of colonialism and CIA interference (about neither of which the narrative approves). The CIA aspect adds an extra conflict to the budding relationship between Savvy and Cal because of course, Savvy is a CIA operative.

It all works seamlessly together, the broader themes of the story working with the more personal ones involving Savvy’s and Cal’s relationship.

There is even a swipe at the white saviour evangelical and I couldn’t help but appreciate that too.

It seems to me that here is a good example of a white author doing her research, being respectful and nuanced, taking into account culture, building it into the story and highlighting it without either demonising or fetishising it (or the people to whom culture belongs). I think the way Ms. Grant has framed the story makes it one she can tell because she’s writing about the white responsibility for the effects of colonisation and domination on the native population.

What else? Apart from a couple of technical glitches where a word was repeated (I think it may have been an issue with pickups – aka edits), the narration was superb. Greg Tremblay has a wonderful range of character voices and this includes his female cast members. His accents are great and not overdone caricatures. The emotion and tension he invests into the story added to what was already a pretty taut listen. I enjoyed the light and shade Mr. Tremblay added (as I usually do) – he hits just the right emphasis on certain words or phrases. Similarly, he also delivered with the intimate scenes. I could hear Savvy and Cal falling in love and their building connection as the story progressed. Mr. Tremblay’s character voice for Cal is consistent across the entire series and deeper than his usual narrative voice. I appreciated that consistency very much.

While Firestorm stands alone fairly well, I think it is best enjoyed in the context of the prior two books, Tinderbox and Catalyst (which can be read/listened to in any order IMO). Savvy and Cal have been dancing around each other from the beginning of the series and having that background helped set the stage for a fast-paced romance – because it had been building for months and wasn’t really all that fast after all. When the spark “catches” however, it doesn’t take long for both characters to commit.

Both the story and the narration are fantastic. Highly recommended.

Grade: A



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