Walking Through Fire by Sherri Cook Woosley
While Sherri Cook Woosley’s debut novel, Walking Through Fire, is a well-plotted urban fantasy filled with harrowing battles, all sorts of freakish monsters, and ancient Sumerian gods making everything explode, what stands out is the one thing Woosley focused on that is oddly rare across all books in the SFF genre: a touching, believable, and realistic relationship between a parent and her child.
In Walking Through Fire, Rachel and her eleven-year-old son, Adam, are tossed into an impossible situation as ancient gods awake and literally incinerate civilization as we know it. The normal world we all know rapidly disintegrates into a combination of the desert hellscape from Fury Road and the weed-choked dystopia of The Walking Dead. If Woosley’s book featured a cast of attractive, hormone-filled teenagers or a cadre of veteran warriors, this would be your standard adventure, a story we’ve all read before. Instead, as a parent of a (soon to be) four-year-old who worries constantly for her safety, Rachel’s struggle to protect Adam had me biting my nails every time another threat loomed over them, because while she and Adam are fleeing the apocalypse, he’s also in the midst of fighting off cancer.
What drives Rachel is a simple goal any parent will immediately understand: she wants to protect her sick eleven-year-old, Adam, just as he wants to protect his mother, even if she’s wildly uncool sometimes. That’s obviously difficult with gods and monsters destroying the world while humanity turns on itself, yet no matter how weird their encounters become (there’s a motorcycle centaur!) Rachel and Adam’s fight to protect each other – to protect their family — is the core of the story, complete with the mundane arguments, rolled eyes, and frustrations any parent and any child will recognize.
I understand why stories centered on families are not as common as we’d like. In books for younger readers, the parents are either dead or captive (hell, Disney just slaughters them) so the young heroes are free to adventure, fight, and have their first kiss without some uncool parent reminding them to eat their vegetables. In stories for adults, the hardened heroes who are too old for this **** fight to protect their children, usually with those children safely out of the way of whatever evil plagues the land or, in the climax, threatened (but not actually murdered) to raise the stakes of the final battle before victory. Rarely do heroes have to stop the dark lord while convincing their child to stop arguing and go to bed.
Yet Woosley’s book combines the mundane struggles of being a parent with the fantastical struggle to survive, each challenge equally daunting, and it never puts either Rachel or Adam safely out of the way of peril. This is why every small victory and giant setback works, because neither of them is ever safe. Rachel is far from fearless, far from happy, and far from ready for the supernatural and natural challenges tossed her way, yet tackles them anyway. She isn’t the hero of this book because she’s a badass warrior, a chosen savior, a super powerful mage, or even an inspiring leader. She’s the hero because she’s a normal person, a mother, who gets hit in the face by her son’s cancer, world-ending firestorms, and irate gods, and keeps fighting because she loves her child and can’t imagine life without him. No matter what her now devastated world throws at her, Rachel handles it. Her strength is her love for Adam and willingness to help whoever she can even though she has no superpowers, just stubborn determination.
Of course, while I found Woosley’s focus on family delightful, that’s not to say Walking Through Fire doesn’t tick all the other awesome urban fantasy boxes. There are dragon gods and fire gods and golden bull gods and healing gods who are secretly creepy. There are motorcycle centaurs and monkey people and crazed death-worshipping cultists running around setting people on fire. There are zombie crabs (freaking zombie crabs!) and a mysterious Weatherman who makes even unplugged radios broadcast his announcements about magical clashes between gods set to the music of Beatles songs. There are harrowing adventures and narrow escapes and epic fights with magical explosions, but all of those elements are enhanced because the stakes are grounded and relatable. Rachel and Adam, protecting each other, and family, complicated and messy.
I really enjoyed Woolsey’s book (especially the developments at the end, and what they suggest for sequels!) and I look forward to reading the next one. You can pick it up here!