Pros: Tension, tension, TENSION!!!! Interesting characters and plot twists
Cons: A bit rough around the edges; felt rushed in places
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 4/8/2001
The name of the book didn’t captivate me either before or after I read the book: “Cold Fire,” and I can’t help thinking that there are so many names that would have better captured the essence of this book. I ended up looking at the list of names of other Koontz books in the front of the book, and many of them seemed kind of bland and generic: “The Funhouse,” “Midnight,” “Darkfall.” I noticed an interesting trend, however; nine of the titles had something to do with faces: masks, faces, voices, eyes, vision. In “Cold Fire,” one of the details that truly stands out is the intense blue eyes of the protagonist, Jim Ironheart, and a voice plays an interesting part in a plot. Someday I’ll have to read the rest of Koontz’s books to see if he really does have a preoccupation with these things, or if I’m just grasping at straws.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Koontz’s writing. I’ve heard great things about it, and I’ve also heard the standard things said about any writer who publishes so many popular books (see Stephen King): that he churns out cookie-cutter books that rely on formula rather than ingenuity and pandering rather than talent. I can’t speak to the things that would have to emerge as patterns over several books, but I can at least look at Koontz’s writing through the eyes of someone who went in without many preconceived notions of what she’d find.
First, Koontz is a master of suspense and tension. By page twenty my heart was thudding in my chest and I had to put the book down for a minute. He understands the dramatic, climactic build-up in a way I probably never will (to my great dismay). This is one of the most tense books I’ve read in a long time, which probably made it exactly the wrong book to take along house-hunting. I was tense enough already, thank you!
Second, in other areas he feels a little rough around the edges. Dialogue is good. Characterization is reasonable, although sometimes I felt he did a little too much telling us about people and not enough showing through the small details. What I didn’t like, however, was his tendency to allow his characters to moralize in these brief, odd, rambling, expository passages here and there throughout the book. It felt… I don’t know. Amateurish? Obviously he isn’t an amateur, but it’s something I’m used to seeing more in pieces of writing handed out in a writing class than in good-quality published work.
Third, Koontz likes to explain everything in painstaking detail, so that the reader knows exactly what’s going on, what happened, and why. Whether this is a pro or a con is entirely up to the reader. I tend to prefer to use my own head a little more; I like mysteries, and I like the head-twisting feeling that I get when a book allows me some room to come to my own realizations. I know, however, that there are plenty of readers who don’t enjoy that. So I’ll leave the determination of whether this is a good or a bad thing to the individual potential reader.
Jim Ironheart saves lives. His inspirations come to him in little flashes, as he suddenly realizes that he has to get to the airport. He needs to hail a cab. He has to hurry. He doesn’t know why he’s saving lives, where his inspirations come from, or why he seems to be saving very specific lives. He never really thinks to answer these questions, because he’s learned to live by faith – maybe God is working through him, or some other higher power.
Then, on one of his rescue missions he meets Holly Thorne, a failing newspaper reporter who has too much integrity and compassion to be good at her job. She and Jim are attracted to each other, but there’s more to it than that – Holly has started having nightmares that seem to be linked to Jim. And she is not willing to sit back and take his missions on faith.
Holly and a reluctant Jim set out to find out who his higher power is, why it’s sending him on these missions, why he’s saving the people he’s saving – not to mention why so many of his childhood memories are missing. And that’s when things get really weird.
Irony and Frustration
I think Koontz was one of those kids who watched movies and got all frustrated at the protagonists for being dumb, for not asking the right questions or for doing stupid things. “Oh, come on, that’s a stupid question!” he would have said to the television screen. “If it was me, I’d have asked something much better!” And oh, does that come out in spades in this book. It’s wonderful to see a character in a “spook novel” refusing to lie down and accept the pat answers, insisting on asking the hard questions, calling plots trite, and generally refusing to be a stupid horror movie protagonist. Holly and Jim were complex, interesting people who were definitely more than the average protagonists.
My only problem with it is that it was a little self-referential. When a book calls attention to the fact that it’s a book (by pointing out the similarity of certain plot aspects to those in old movies or books), it pulls me a little bit out of its “reality” and back into the realization that I’m sitting on a bus, with a mild headache, staring at some pieces of paper. I prefer not to have that reminder; I prefer to be totally wrapped up in the alternate reality.
The book seemed to end just slightly faster than I would have liked. The way in which it ended was fairly satisfying, but somehow I’ve had this lingering feeling that there must have been a few more pages that I skipped or something. The pace was just a little too fast and abrupt at the end.
As a Whole…
I very much enjoyed this book. The tension was fantastic – way above what most writers out there can manage. There were some wonderful bits of dialogue here and there. The characters were interesting and unusual. The plot was pretty original in a number of different ways. There were only small things here and there that bugged me, little roughnesses that gave the book a slight feeling of having been rushed and shortened a little too much. I expect I’ll be reading more Koontz books, on other bus rides. But not while I’m house-hunting. I don’t need that extra tension!