Rating: 5 stars
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Length: Novel

Lieutenant Elliot Davis is a U.S. Navy SEAL working off the eastern coast of Africa. Elliot and his team are brought in to rescue some CIA agents who need to be evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the area is under immediate threat of attack by violent rebels. The agents reveal that they have intel that suggests one of the rebel groups, a militant Islamic organization, has been involved in trading a deadly virus that could cause a global pandemic… and what they are getting in return is potentially even more devastating. The SEALs are called back in, this time to find a doctor who treated a patient with more information about the rebels and what they are planning.

Dr. Ikolo Ngondu runs a hospital in the Congo. His patients are refugees, seeking asylum from the devastation caused by the rebel groups, and his hospital is barely hanging on as the numbers of patients swell and supplies are limited. With the Americans and Europeans evacuating to safety, Ikolo knows it just means even more certain death for his patients and the struggling refugees of the Congo.

When the man Elliot suspects of terrorism manages to escape, headed west through the dense jungle, Elliot knows there is no choice but to follow him. No one is quite sure what the group is planning, but it is certain to be devastating. Ikolo agrees to be Elliot’s guide, as the jungle is virtually impassable, particularly to an American with no knowledge of the area. As the men race through the jungle on the heels of their target, their connection grows, and soon Elliot and Ikolo find themselves having feelings for each other. Everything about Ikolo just calls to Elliot. He eases Elliot’s loneliness and connects somewhere deep inside Elliot’s soul. But the men are running out of time to catch up with the rebels before they unleash their deadly attack. And with a devastating disease rampaging through the country, staying alive is even harder. Now it is a race against time to find their target and stop him, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

I was caught up in this story from the very first moment and I found myself completely captivated by this book. Something about Tal Bauer’s writing just really resonates with me and this has to be among my favorite of his work. The story is beautiful and moving, haunting and devastating, and thrilling and exciting, all in one.

One of the things that always strikes me about Bauer’s books is the way he can bring a setting to life. It is not just the excellent way he establishes the sense of place, but also the way he brings the reader in to really connect with the culture and atmosphere. There is so much rich detail here about life in eastern Africa, and the Congo in particular. Everything from the types of trees in the jungle, to the food people eat, to the sights and smells just comes to life. I could completely picture the rustic hospital, the lush and forbidding jungle, and the remote, isolated villages. But even more, Bauer brings us into the hearts of the people who live there. There is just a deep sense of place and culture that really makes Bauer’s books sing and Soul on Fire is a perfect example.

At the heart of this story are Ikolo and Elliot, two men from very different worlds, but who connect on a soul deep level. Elliot grew up facing racism that made him always feel less than and other. The military was a chance to find himself, in an organization that promised to see beyond his skin color. And, for the most part, it did. But Elliot also has been feeling a disconnect, particularly in the wake of the tragedies befalling the people of the Congo. He recognizes how the world looks differently at Africa, how threats to poor black children aren’t given the same priority as to white ones. With the rebels encroaching, the Americans and Europeans are pulling their citizens out, leaving the refugees right in the path of certain death. Elliot realizes that he can no longer tolerate this kind of policy, and works to make his superiors see the importance of not leaving them behind. For his part, Ikolo struggles treating far more patients than he can possibly support in a poorly funded field hospital. He watches the Americans leave, knowing his people will die. It is just devastating to read and Bauer really captures the emotions here so strongly. This story is unflinching in making the reader face the way this part of the world is often neglected, and the situation is one that really bonds Elliot and Ikolo together.

While Ikolo has a strong sense of himself and who he is, Elliot is at a tipping point. He can no longer go forward as he has been, but he isn’t quite sure where he is going next. Being with Ikolo helps Elliot finally find himself and recognize what he needs. The title Soul on Fire describes Elliot at these moments, the way he lights up with Ikolo, and the way he feels that burning passion that he is finally acting and reaching for what he never quite knew he needed. Obviously, I can not speak to the authenticity of Bauer’s portrayal of the experiences of a Black American and a Black African, but as a reader, it felt so true, so passionate and real. I could feel their pain and their joy, as well as their intense connection to Africa and its people. The characters just came to life for me, and the sweetness that is between them amidst all the crisis is just so rewarding and lovely.

What makes this story all the more impressive is that on top of everything else, we have a taut and exciting suspense thriller. We know right from the start that the rebels are trading a live Ebola virus for some sort of weapon. We don’t know exactly what, nor do we know their target, but we do know it is devastating. As one of their leaders escapes into the jungle, it is a race against time track him before he unleashes destruction on the world. I can’t even convey how well Bauer handles this part of the story. He starts with many seemingly disparate threads, and slowly the pieces come together and we see how the characters and storylines interconnect to create the big picture of what is really happening. The story is both small and intimate, through Elliot and Ikolo’s eyes, as well as massive on a global scale. The way Bauer balances the two pieces is really masterful.

I’ll also note that the author wrote this story in less than a month from the ground up, based on a prompt from his reader group. Now, I’ll admit, I was a little wary, wondering whether the story written in such a short time would have Bauer’s usual polish. I have to tell you, I am blown away. Not only is the story smooth and well developed, but the sheer level of detail and research here is mind boggling. I could have believed this story took years to write and research, not a month.

Overall, this story was everything I could have wanted. I was moved by the social issues, thrilled by the suspense plot, and delighted in Elliot and Ikolo finding happiness together. This book is a stand out for me, and easily one of my favorites so far this year. I can highly recommend it.