Rating: 3 stars
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Fireman Gideon Sato is combing through the remains of a burning warehouse when he finds the body of a man buried under the timbers and ashes of the building. At first, Gideon believes the man is dead, so he is stunned when the body moves, the man groaning in pain. How could anyone survive such a blaze?
Vanya Stravinsky is leaving the restaurant where he works as a chef when he is mugged and knocked unconscious. Then Vanya is waking up in the ashes of a burning warehouse with a fireman standing over top of him. Shaking from the cold and naked, Vanya is rushed off to the hospital for treatment and questioning about the fire. One thing all the investigators want to know…how did Vanya survive the blaze? While the events of the evening are still foggy, Vanya is alert enough to hide his biggest secret and the reason why he was in a burning building, making everyone suspicious.
A police detective is sure Vanya is an arsonist and working for the mob so a panicked Vanya turns to Gideon for help and comfort. It will take both men to clear Vanya’s name, but will their love survive when Vanya reveals the secrets he has been hiding?
Burning Now is A.R. Moler’s take on the slavic folklore of “Zhar-ptitsa,” also known as the firebird. As the story opens, Vanya is a chef in a small Russian-Ukranian bistro, and is mugged leaving work. The next instant we watch as Gideon finds Vanya under the debris in a still burning building and mistakes him for a dead body. Moler does a nice job bringing the reader into the scene and action of those personnel involved in putting out a fire.
No fire is was done until all the hot spots had been extinguished, and the chief declared it out. Gideon Sato poked through the rubble of the warehouse with his pike pole. The men of Station 18 had spent most of the night getting the blaze under control and out. Smoky steam still drifted up from numerous spots of semi-collapsed debris. Gideon hooked the end of the pike under one suspicious looking metal slab that had probably fallen from above and flipped it back.
He froze. A filthy soot covered pair of bare feet protruded from under smaller chunks of debris. Aw hell. There was a victim. Gideon shouted back over his shoulder at a colleague. “Hey Victa, got a crispy critter over here. Better tell Cap’ we’re going to need a body bag.”
As you can tell from that scene, Moler inserts dialog that would probably found at any arson site in the nation where firefighters might use callous sounding terms to gloss over the horrifying nature of finds like this one. Unfortunately, the next bit of inner dialog and descriptions of Gideon pulling out Vanya from under the debris counter that effectiveness with some disastrous and confusing intermingling of thoughts and actual events. This is an example:
Gideon began to shift some more of the debris. The feet and lower legs weren’t charred. Interesting. He pushed away chunks of burned boxes and there was an overlapping set of metals rods held off the floor by a toasted ex-washing machine. As Gideon shoved back the rods and a layer of burnt cardboard, there was a whole body beneath, lying face down. Wow. Whole as in filthy dirty but completely unburned. Also very, very naked. Mr. Dead-of-Smoke-Inhalation was one deliciously built guy. Ewww. Gideon gave himself a little shake. Skeevving on a dead body was just gross. Still, he did have to wonder why the guy was naked.
While I don’t fault the content, the format is confusing and hurts the overall cohesion of the story. This is a pretty typical example of the style of narrative of Burning Now. Why not break out the thoughts from the events that are happening? As it is written, it strikes me as more confusing with the commentary buried within third person narrative.
There are some good ideas within this story. I would have loved to have been given more plot to go along with the folklore. From the sources I found “In Slavic folklore, the Firebird (Russian: ???-??????, zhar-ptitsa), is a magical glowing bird from a faraway land, which is both a blessing and a bringer of doom to its captor.” But we never really get any background on Vanya or his family, except for the city in Russia where they came from. This is a huge hole when you are basing your story around a mythical beast. You need the background material in order to ground your story and that is missing here. Is Vanya a curse or a blessing? How does the reality of being a firebird relate to the folklore? We never find out.
Equally absent is any sort of meaningful relationship between Vanya and Gideon. When a main character reveals something as outrageous and mind boggling as the fact that they are a mythical being, the relationship between the men should be solid and believable enough to make that scene emotional and dramatic as the reader would reasonably expect it to be. Unfortunately, I found it hard to invest myself in either man or their relationship.
The fact that Burning Now is only three chapters in length also hurts the story. The author just did not have enough pages to round out their story and invest the characters with the necessary back histories to make the events and relationship seem realistic (even with the mythical element involved).
In the end, while I found parts of this story interesting, the main characters and plot fell short for me. I would recommend this story only to those diehard fans of A.R. Moler’s or those who covet one more story involving the firebird legend.
Cover illustration by BS Clay is lovely and vibrant.