The action in the James Jaros novel Carry the Flame may be both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand we are a civilization that seems to need a lot of stimulation, hence movies with one action sequence after another and the plethora of online distractions, gaming, etc. For people of that ilk, Carry the Flame delivers. I myself don’t mind a degree of heart-stopping action, it’s one of the reasons I have turned increasingly to apocalyptic and dystopian fiction over just regular fiction, but I think when you have non-stop action and violence without pause that’s as bad as the other extreme of not much happening. Think about it, our bodies pump cortisol when we are experiencing a classic “fight or flight” moment, but it’s not good to sustain that increase in blood flow and cortisol. Too much and it can make you sick. In a novel one of the consequences of the pacing being at full throttle throughout includes missing out on the buildup to the action or violence which creates that extreme tension and suspense. You really feel the difference once your heart has slowed to a normal rate and then suddenly something unexpected or terrible happens. If your heart is constantly racing you miss out on that sensation, think about a rollercoaster, when you are climbing your heart can relax, then you plunge down while your adrenaline cranks up, then you recover just enough when climbing again to feel the difference with the next plunge.
The other problem with the non-stop pace is there is less time for character development. I do think James Jaros has drawn some vivid characters starting with Burn Down the Sky, the first book in which the pacing wasn’t as fast. In this sequel the strong female characters of Jessie, Bliss and Ananda are again fighting to survive with the help of Burned Fingers, the former marauder. However, we are missing the backstory of new characters like Sam, Steph, Xray, Linden and especially the Mayor. How did Sam’s daughter get taken? Were Steph’s people trying to reach the Artic too? Linden is the Mayor’s aide but is actually a good guy in disguise. How long has he been on the side of good and how has he managed to keep his secrets in the deadly City of Shade? If he is good, how did he get mixed up with the Mayor in the first place? The Mayor appears to be an educated foreign psycho with an honor code. I wanted to know more about what made him into the person who rules the City of Shade. It’s interesting that he looks upon the Alliance of God with disdain as child molesters and religious freaks, but he is willing to trade with them and his own hands are far from clean. Unfortunately, despite the over 400 pages that make up the book, there isn’t enough time to fill in this gaps when most of the words are made up of the violent action. There also wasn’t enough time spent on the evolution of the relationship between Jess, her girls and Burned Fingers. Bliss literally has to fight back to back with Burned Fingers and trust him with her life and her mother’s, but a psychiatrist would have a field day the effect that must have on her young psyche. Plus, what about Jessie the mom? Burned Fingers is responsible for killing the love of her life Eden, yet he is constantly saving her other great loves, her children and she is caught off guard by other glimpses of his humanity and a part of her appears to admire his ability to make war. That is an interesting plotline that is hinted at too briefly.
However, if I had to err on one side I guess a heart pumping read wins out over long chapters where nothing is happening. My only other quibble is it’s unclear whether there is another sequel to follow this one. Yes, there isn’t exactly a cliffhanger ending such as one of the girls being taken and us readers wondering what will happen to her, so technically this could end the story. However, we haven’t learned who or what the mysterious Dominion is who doesn’t want people to cross border into Canada. Also, is the Artic the new Promised land? Are the trees and plants growing back in the north allowing life to be sustained? What will be the consequences of the caravan splitting into two groups heading north and Ananda is in the separate group from her mother and sister? This book was published in 2012, so it seems that timing-wise if a sequel isn’t coming soon, it may not be happening, and that would be a shame.