Welcome to Rick’s Read-Along. A new series presented by Horror Oasis where I visit an author’s entire back catalogue and encourage you, the reader, to read along with me.  I will publish my thoughts on each book every two weeks, while also announcing the next book I’ll be reading. Every author selected will be someone whose back catalogue is readily available and is somebody we feel our readers will enjoy discovering along with us. I hope that you’ll all join me in sharing your thoughts.

The first author in the series will be Gemma Amor. Gemma is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated writer whose books include Dear Laura, Cruel Works of Nature, White Pines, Girl on Fire and These Wounds We Make, all of which Gemma has self-published, as well as producing her own unique and beautiful cover art. Not content with conquering the world of indie horror, Gemma is also a successful podcast writer, contributing to the No Sleep and Shadows at the Door Podcast as well as co-creating the female-centric comedy-horror audio drama, Calling Darkness. Visit her website at gemmaamorauthor.com

It is bittersweet to finally get round to ‘Girl on Fire’, as it marks the last book in this read-along series, and is also the book I have most been looking forward to reading. It tells the tale of Ruby, a young woman who has lived a hard life and, in a shocking and unexpected moment of tragedy, is reborn into a strong and powerful force of nature. Will Ruby use her newfound powers for good, or has her troubled life led her toward a much darker path…

We first met Ruby over in ‘Cruel Works of Nature’, where I singled out her short story origin as one of the book’s highlights. Anyone who hasn’t read ‘Cruel Works of Nature’, worry not, because the story is re-told here. I must say though, after having a number of weeks since reading the short, and knowing that Ruby’s story continued here, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder what came next, and the reality of those expectations are so much better than I had imagined.

The short story was effectively Ruby’s superhero origin story, and the novel expands on that greatly to explore what somebody with a vendetta against the world, and a seemingly never-ending supply of rage, would do given near-unlimited power. The word super-villain springs to mind, and there is no doubt that that is how a lot of the characters in ‘Girl on Fire’ see Ruby. It may even be how Ruby views herself, but an early scene which depicts Ruby fleeing appalling treatment at the hands of her step-father, followed by a horrific accident, before a traumatic meeting with a group of bikers, certainly makes Ruby’s violent actions understandable in the beginning. We, the reader, even cheer her on. Her retaliation feels just and deserved, but that feeling, for me at least, was fleeting, as ‘Girl on Fire’ presents a far more complex character study than a simple superpowered vigilante thriller.

What struck me as the book went on, particularly as Ruby is pushed into action by the unnamed agency featured towards the second half, is how much the reader connects with and cares about a character who, quite frankly isn’t all that likeable. For much of the book, she is portrayed as arrogant and unpleasant to be around, and the early scene in Glenns Ferry has Ruby committing an act so awful, that there is no redemption possible for her, and the fact we still root for her after what she does is a testament to how complex she is as a character. There is a lot to ponder about Ruby in this regard as the book progresses. In the early scenes at least, her motivation is clear. She has escaped a toxic situation at home and has experienced trauma that has, understandably, left her with a bleak worldview. As the novel progresses, however, this balance comes into question often and raises a lot of questions regarding the distinction between Ruby’s nature, and her upbringing.

Do the events of her past justify the events of Glenns Ferry? Would Ruby have continued her vendetta against the world had the mysterious agency not intervened or did that meeting spur her on? Would her meeting with Cat have changed her plans had they played out differently? The real question that is asked, but never answered, is whether Ruby is just fundamentally a bad person, regardless of her past. She certainly seems to feel no remorse for the terrible things she does but then, we also get small moments of real humanity, which give you hope for change or, at least the acknowledgement that there is still a good person inside her, buried by rage. I think the answer we get to this question (i.e. none at all) is what makes the book so interesting, acknowledging as it does that there are no easy answers to such a question, and the truth in such situations is as complex as it is grey.

So far, I feel like I’ve painted a very downbeat and introspective picture, and while Girl on Fire certainly has its moments in that regard, I feel like I’m underselling just how enjoyable and entertaining the book is. There are big action scenes a-plenty, and a lot of humour to be found as well. A lot of both of these elements come from the black ops agency that spends a significant portion of the book attempting to track down and capture Ruby. The leader of this group in particular gets some epic Bond villain moments and a lot of the books big scale set-pieces are a direct result of them playing antagonist to Ruby’s ‘hero’. The whole story is very cinematic and, of Amor’s work to date, ‘Girl on Fire’ is the one piece that is all too tantalisingly easy to picture on the big screen (I totally see Sophie Turner as Ruby). Here’s hoping Hollywood take note!

One unexpected (but delightful) surprise was to see all the fun nods and references to her previous books sprinkled throughout this novel. If there was a ‘Dear Laura’ reference, I missed it, but there are a number of short stories in both ‘Cruel Works of Nature’ and ‘These Wounds We Make’, as well as a shout-out to the events of ‘White Pines’, that get a mention, setting up that all of the author’s work is set in the same universe (the Amoriverse?). It’s not an uncommon approach in horror fiction (Brian Keene springs to mind as someone who has done it very successfully) and such a shared universe lends itself especially well when it’s introduced in a ‘superhero’ novel. If you haven’t read Gemma’s previous books, then ‘Girl on Fire’ absolutely works as a standalone, as the references fit organically into the story and you don’t need to know they relate to stories from other books for them to make sense and add to story being told but, if you have joined in the read-along, or you have read Gemma’s earlier books, there is a lot of fun to be had in spotting the familiar faces that make an appearance.

Overall, I think ‘Girl on Fire’ may be my favourite work by Gemma Amor to date. She showed great skill in getting into the minds of her characters in ‘Dear Laura’ enjoyed the more light-hearted tone of ‘Cruel Works of Nature’, which was in contrast with the dark, almost bleak content of ‘Cruel Works of Nature’ and the slow burn terror of White Pines’. ‘Girl on Fire’ feels like a culmination of all those things, a novel that takes all of the authors not insubstantial tricks of the trade and uses them all to perfect effect to tell a grand-scale story with something deeply personal at its heart.

While there is certainly tragedy aplenty in ‘Girl on Fire’, and some dark themes explored, it is also perhaps Gemma’s most ‘fun’ book to date, working as both an introspective look at a flawed character (a-la ‘Dear Laura), a big scale epic (a-la ‘White Pines’) and its own unique spin on superhero and espionage fiction. It was a book I didn’t want to end and, as much as I was sad to leave Ruby, I was heartened by the last page of the book…

“Ruby will return in Blaze”

Richard Martin

Richard Martin

Reviewer

Richard Martin started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatized himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner and an inappropriate amount of books. 

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