Another trip to the (apparently) bottomless well that is macho literature. Well, in this case, it’s more “teen adventure” than macho, since “Wildfire”, published in 2006, is a young adult novel. The author has impeccably manly credentials, though. For anyone who’s too young to remember the first Gulf War, Chris Ryan was a member of the British SAS sent off on a reconnaissance mission deep into Iraq with some of his colleagues. It all went, to put it mildly, a bit wrong ( I’m pretty sure almost everyone getting killed or captured wasn’t part of the plan) and Ryan ended up being the only member of the patrol to escape.
He did this by crossing most of Iraq, evading the soldiers out to catch him and eventually swimming across the Euphrates River. Unsurprisingly, Ryan ended up a decorated war hero, and he’s spun the fame he gained from that into writing a whole series of adventure/war novels for adults and teenagers.
“Wildfire” centres on thirteen-year old Ben Tracey, out in Adelaide in Australia, where his mother Bel is pursuing her career as an environmental campaigner, for a half-term holiday. Ben is in the care of eighteen-year old American Kelly Kurtis, who is teaching him to fly a microlight, when Adelaide, not to put too fine a point on it, catches fire. There is a whole, rather silly, subplot around why Adelaide catches fire, ripped off from a fairly well-known “weather-control” conspiracy theory, but to be honest I would just have accepted “it catches fire because Australia.” Like southern California and the French Riviera, it just seems to be one of those places that bursts into flames every so often.
Bel, and a number of minor characters who are really pretty superfluous to the plot, have to escape the flames, and ultimately Ben and Kelly must fly through them to rescue his mother from the heart of the burning city.
“Wildfire” has its positives. It is, at least, not a book you would be worried your kids were reading, if you were a parent or teacher. There’s no bad language, no sex (and minimal romance) and most of the characters are basically decent people. Even the more villainous come across as more misguided or stupid than evil; of course, the fire is the real villain. All that costs in terms of realism, naturally. In particular, Ben is portrayed as uninterested in girls to an extent that I don’t think a real thirteen year old boy would be (well, I certainly wasn’t that uninterested). He’s also responsible, cool-headed and brave in a way that probably makes him a great role model for teenagers, but a pretty unrealistic teenager. He’s such a Boy Scout.
Really, characterisation is the biggest single problem with “Wildfire”. Adults or teens, most of the characters are just so bland you can barely care when they’re at imminent risk of death. They’re like cardboard cut-out actors in a toy theatre, moved around the stage to perform the mechanics of the plot, but without the emotional range or backstories to make them interesting. This is particularly notable in terms of how they speak i.e. mostly, all in the same way.
There are British, Australian and American characters (specifically, Texans) in this book, and although Ryan makes some effort to remind us that Kelly is a Yank, most of the time you can’t really tell from the dialogue that they would all be speaking different varieties of English. Whilst I do get that Australians aren’t all like Crocodile Dundee or Sir Les Patterson and that the vast majority of Texans aren’t cowboys, these are places known for some colourful use of English (not all of it too rude to print), and this book almost completely ignores that.
As mentioned earlier, Ryan also has a tendency to throw in lots of fairly superfluous minor characters trying to escape the disaster or fighting the flames, in one case a couple from New Zealand who are dead literally a couple of pages later. I assume the idea is to show the effect of this epic fire on the population of a large city, any of whom might die or survive depending on their smallest decisions, but these minor characters tend to be even more poorly-characterised than the main ones, so really it’s even harder to feel sorry when they get chargrilled (or relieved when they don’t).
In any case, a lot of this comes across as padding for the main plot of Bel escaping the fire and Ben and Kelly rescuing her when the plot commands that she must stop being able to escape, which in itself would not fill 321 pages. In fact, our two main characters spend a large chunk of their time in the book flying away from Adelaide pursuing a red herring in the form of a train they (wrongly) think Kelly’s father has been spirited away on by kidnappers. Whilst that provides a reason why Ben can fly the microlight well enough to pull off his heroic rescue by the time he does that, it’s at the expense of reducing his and Kelly’s impact on the main events.
Either Ryan’s writing a realistic novel about what a bushfire in a major city would be like, with lots of random people running in terror and their survival a matter of luck, or he’s writing about a couple of kid heroes saving the day in a disaster. As it is, “Wildfire” ends up an uncomfortable mixture of both. For all that, I’ll give Ryan one thing – it’s better than “Market Forces”.