It’s hot outside. The lawn is scorched. We’re under a water ban. Veggies at the farmer’s market pale, vendors dwindle, and the early thaw ruined 80% of the fruit crop. This May was the warmest on record. Forest fires rage in Colorado while rains pour in the most unlikely of locales. CARRY THE FLAME is James Jaros’ stunning sequel to BURN DOWN THE SKY a post-apocalyptic thriller published last year by HarperCollins. When read in the context of the current drought, James Jaros is beginning to sound downright prophetic.
Here, from the back cover:
Having survived the terror of the Alliance and the single-minded fanaticism of its hideous religion, a caravan of survivors moves quickly into the Great American Desert, the wastes of what was once America’s heartland. With her daughters at her side–recently rescued Ananda and her daring older sister, Bliss–Jessie hopes to find sanctuary in the Arctic, now rumored to be temperate after climate change triggered the collapse of most of Earth’s natural systems. But their enemies are powerful and relentless, and will not rest until they possess the caravan’s most precious treasures: their prepubescent female children, a stolen tanker filled with fuel–and a pair of frightened twins, whom the Army of God calls “demon.” But the danger in pursuit pales before the horror that lies ahead when Jessie, the marauder-turned-ally Burned Fingers, and the innocents in their care face the savagery, the madness, and the monsters that dwell in the terrifying City of Shade.
“Gutsy…With references to ecological despoliation and oil as a precious commodity, Jaros’s novel has a noticeable Mad Max vibe, replete with quirky characters and nonstop action. Tense, terse prose suits the setting and carries the story nimbly along.”
Publishers Weekly on CARRY THE FLAME.
“I really could not put this book down…Jaros does a great job of creating strong, believable women role-models with real emotions…BURN DOWN THE SKY is a fun, well-written, post-apocalyptic quest story that entertains, and I strongly recommend it for fans of Stephen King’s The Stand, the Mad Max films, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.” The Alternative on BURN DOWN THE SKY.
Gutsy … Yes that is how I would describe this novel, too. And the reference to strong female characters is important because he sure puts them through hell. In James Jaros’ world, the apocalypse has amplified the worst in man and mankind. We’re regressing, tragically so, and in so doing the author exposes our weaknesses: religion as a tool for domination and men subjugating women given the worst circumstances.
This is not escapist reading—this novel will imprison you and torture you with the questions you’ll ask yourself, it did me. Luckily I now have the chance to turn those questions back on James Jaros.
If this is your first taste of Jaros, by all means, read the first book, but to his credit, they both work as standalone thrillers and I promise that this interview is spoiler free.
‘Hic sunt dracones’, Burned Fingers, a protagonist with a dark past, says at one point—The words once denoted unknown territory on maps—likewise CARRY THE FLAME drew me into unknown territory as well, at times unwillingly. Before you pick up this book, pack a survival kit, you’re not going anywhere until it’s done.
The title speaks of hope and I asked James Jaros if he felt we had any hope of turning around climate change. He doesn’t sound so sure.
“I believe that it is likely that if we don’t have systemic change to reduce the ever-growing release of greenhouse gases that our children and grandchildren will inhabit a Hobbesian world in which widespread breakdowns of social order will take place. I’m not predicting that, but I think it’s likely if we don’t have a turnaround in the next decade, we’re hooped.”
It’s a burden, and each character within the book carries their own, whether it’s lost family members like Augustus and Cassie, Bliss having to follow the man who killed her father, or simpler struggles like Bliss and Jaya’s youthful desire to find a place to be alone. Even the tanker truck full of gasoline, which propels them across the Great American Desert, seems like a lodestone too precious for marauders to resist.
Perhaps because James Jaros lives close to nature in a small mountain community in Canada he feels the weight of climate changes more acutely than most, or maybe because he spends so much time hiking, cross country skiing and camping, he has more to lose. But James Jaros made a career as an environmental investigative correspondent for NBC News. His efforts resulted in real change, in one case an emergency ban of the carcinogenic pesticide EDB, while another muckraking report forced the resignation of the head of the EPA. But then why write novels about it, why not continue reporting? He responds:
“I came to believe that in a very real sense I was helping to perpetuate the idea that the system really does work to make things better, while all the time the environment, which has long been a major concern of mine, continued to be a garbage disposal for a consumer economy. Look, my reports actually put people in prison. In my seven years as a network correspondent, I won four national Emmys for investigative reporting, but most television investigations, no matter how noble, end up focusing on what I call the carousel of faces: one comes around, you pick it off, and another quickly takes its place.”
But CARRY THE FLAME isn’t a soapbox for James Jaros anymore than it was for George Miller in the Mad Max series. “I didn’t set out to deal with the environment directly. My first three published novels looked at deep violence through the eyes of serial killers. But the environment was very present subtexturally in those books. I think the stories pick the author. And that’s not some mystical crap, that’s just been my experience … I don’t feel I’m consciously writing books to move a political or environmental agenda, but those are the stories and characters who are honoring me with their presence.
“I want readers to enter a world that they’ve never known and come out of it with a greater sense of empathy because they’ve spent time with deeply drawn characters faced with extremely challenging circumstances.”
It’s this balance between great storytelling and subtext that makes CARRY THE FLAME impactful.
The plot hurtles along and the characters transform, many coming of age with blood on their hands. James Jaros’ writing is literate, thought provoking, and detailed, deliberately so. He may not outline but he rewrites “obsessively”, which is apparent not only in the tightness of the prose but the detail. As an example, I asked Jaros why he used human femurs in place of bars in the City of Shade, and he suggested I think about it: “This is a world of scarcity, and enough metal to build prison bars would be hard to find and very hard to fashion. But the bones of 65 million Midwesterners would be plentiful, so it just seemed to me that you build with what you have–and the world of CARRY THE FLAME has a lot of bones.”
The fully built world still packs surprises, like the twins whose condition I won’t spoil for readers. And a pair of featured threats: Komodo Dragons. These beasts are damn hard to kill and great at killing. James Jaros relates: “One of the folks who reads for me thought that I’d taken liberties in one particularly harrowing scene with a Komodo. Let’s just say that an individual is eaten, python-like, by the dragon. He emailed me to say that Komodos didn’t do that. He’s a great guy and he was just covering my back. So I sent him the link to a video showing a komodo eating a whole wild pig, much as a python, would by swallowing the critter pretty much in one piece.”
Now to the meat of it, where there is bound to be a few ruffled feathers and grunts of disgust for those not willing to look a little deeper. Religion has not progressed in CARRY THE FLAME and nor has 50% of the human race. A hundred pages or so in, I found myself ashamed to be a man and wondering whether, given the right culture and opportunity, would I become as evil as the antagonists in the novel? It’s a difficult question to ask oneself. It’s more likely that I would not have survived to find out.
“I think the most dangerous ground for a writer is to write dishonestly. Religion, as I see it, is largely a tool for the power brokers. As for religion as a source of such evil in a post-apocalyptic world, why would it be any different then from what it is now? Yes, I know religion provides great sustenance for many people, but the religious fanatics would take us all down tomorrow, if they had their way. I’ll never forget reading a Frank Bruni profile of President Bush in The New York Times. Bruni quoted Bush as saying that he felt that God had put him in the White House at that time–this was right after 9/11–for a purpose. And my response was a fast profanity at the recognition that we had zealots on both sides of the looming battle.”
So what does he have to say about the rapist that lingers in many men?
“The brute nature of the world I envision is not going to be easy for men, but I think it will be hardest on women and children. Extreme conditions always are. Women and children are horribly abused in war. There are immense amounts of data on that. Rape is a common tool of torture and subjugation. So there’s nothing about human nature to suggest to me that some people marinating in the worst the world has to offer will not succumb to their worst impulses.”
I liked that the only redemptive men were those who foreswore such actions on both sides of the battle. And the book is filled with strong female protagonists drawn from the many experiences and relationships James Jaros has had over the years.
“I’ve always written female characters. I’m genuinely interested in women, and I’ve been blessed to have a lot of female friends, and by that I mean non-sexual friends, for the most part. I think it’s true that women generally talk about their feelings more, so if a man is willing to really listen, it’s not hard to learn a lot about a woman’s sensibility. I’m also fortunate to be raising a highly articulate daughter who’s inordinately capable of conveying her experiences. And I have a wife who’s a therapist, who counsels lots of women, and her sensibility informs me (not her cases, of course, because that’s all confidential), so that’s the milieu in which I find myself. I adore women. I grew up in a matriarchal home in which my mother pretty much ran everything that mattered.”
CARRY THE FLAME is dedicated ‘For the wayward’. James Jaros says it’s for “… those who step outside the mainstream, who commit acts of civil disobedience, who are acting in whatever capacity their consciences permit to resist the deadly cycle that we have entered because of what is happening to Earth.”
The book had me wondering if I needed to be a little more wayward myself. It’s the sign of a good book.
James Jaros is the penname of Mark Nykanen, the author of seven thrillers. His last two books have been BURN DOWN THE SKY and its sequel, CARRY THE FLAME. Both depict North America after the collapse of natural systems because of climate change. Nykanen’s novels have been widely praised in national magazines and newspapers. Europe’s largest newspaper called him “The new master of the psycho-sexual thriller.” Translation rights for his books have sold to seven countries, including Germany, where THE BONE PARADE (“Totenstarre”) was a bestseller. His novel, PRIMITIVE, was a number one Kindle bestseller (paid list). Before turning to fiction, Nykanen won many awards in journalism, including four national Emmys for investigative reporting. He blogs about climate change at www.postingfromthepostapocalypse.com and his author website can be found at www.marknykanen.com.