Fighting fires is in Jason’s blood, so when an attempt at rescuing a small child during a nasty blaze fails, it rocks Jason to the core. Far more than his own disfiguring burns, it is the death of his best friend and fellow firefighter, Dave, that is most damaging to Jason. So much so that he contemplates “exit strategies.” In fact, if it weren’t for the deep compassion of his private nurse, Zoe Calder, Jason likely would have succeeded in ending his life.
Zoe has fought tooth and nail to get where she is. After being disowned at sixteen for being transgender, she busted her ass to become a highly regarded private nurse who caters to burn victims. When she takes on Jason’s case, she is ready to help a man get back on his feet. She never expected to develop a deeply personal attachment to her patient…nor that Jason might reciprocate. In order to avoid an ethical nightmare, Zoe turns to online dating. The man she finds seems too good to be true and, as the veneer of perfect match starts to crack, Zoe realizes she has uncovered a twisted mix of hatred and betrayal. Soon, she finds herself the target of a terrifying man and at the mercy of an entirely unsympathetic “justice” system.
Zoe and Jason cleave together as they start unraveling the heinous plot against Zoe…but can they prove the perpetrators are guilty before they make Zoe disappear?
Initially, I picked this book for two reasons. First, I’m interesed in transgender stories. Second, I still remember an extremely well-crafted fanfic that featured firefighters. Through the Inferno delivered big, not only on these two themes, but it also developed into an edge-of-your-seat thriller that had me whipping through pages desperate to find out what happens. As noted above, the justice system’s bias against people who are not white and male came into play. That is to say, Jessi Noelle brilliantly captures the utter futility Zoe experiences trying to bring a violent stalker to justice. Suffice to say, Noelle’s ability to incorporate all these elements in a riveting story that combines romance with outright thriller threads made for an extremely satisfying read.
To me, it feels like the events in the book divide it into two distinct parts: before the stalker brutally rapes and attempts to murder Zoe, and after. This distinction grew increasingly clear in my mind because prior to the attack, the plot and characters seem to follow a more-or-less generic romance structure. The two intended love birds are introduced. Jason’s recovery takes center stage. I’ll admit, for a much detail goes into describing his care and his struggles with recovery, I was a bit surprised we never learned the extent of the damage caused by the fire. By the same token, I also think eschewing such details allows us to focus on the man rather than the accident. Zoe’s search for love is the counterpoint to Jason’s recovery. She is in a place in her life where she feels ready to pursue a serious relationship, starting with finding the right man. Afterwards, these two themes do not disappear, but they take a backseat to the sweeping drama of Zoe being the target of a hate-crime/sexual assault that has curious links to organized crime. (Trigger warning: there is graphic, on-page description of the attack on Zoe.)
Overall, I loved Zoe. I thought she was a beautifully balanced character. She demonstrates admirable inner strength as she deals with multiple levels of rejection—from her father, from the justice system, from Jason’s family—but she also shows self doubt and vulnerability as she and Jason fall in love. Noelle captures Zoe’s dedication to the job and how she balances it with the close relationship she has with her best friend. Zoe feels like a real person, buffeted by circumstances beyond her control and trying to make the best of it. Jason comes off a bit less authentic to me. His early depictions as he struggles to come to terms with whatever the extent of the damage is to his fire-ravaged body rang true (to my uneducated self). However, once the immediate threat to his life has passed, it felt like he shifted subtly from a main character to a supporting one. My one criticism of the characters is that Jason turns into a character who largely seems to function as a Deus Ex Machina device and Zoe’s best friend seems like she was created solely for the purpose of acting on Zoe’s behalf. That is to say, where Jason still has some connections to life outside his relationship with Zoe, everything the best friend does is because of or for the sake of Zoe.
On the whole, though, this is an excellent story that features some elements that I think are not commonly represented in fiction and certainly not often together: trans characters and people with disabilities. The systemic discrimination Zoe faces added a depressing dash of realism and helped spiral the tension of the final climax off the charts. I would recommend this story to anyone interested in contemporary romances, thrillers, and/or stories featuring thoughtful representations of transgender and disabled characters.