Review: Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

9780718185480The badass amalgamation of Bond, Bourne, Reacher and Batman is back in a fourth instalment in the Orphan X saga — and this time it’s personal!

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, aka ‘The Nowhere Man;’ a one-time government assassin (as part of the covert ‘Orphan’ program) turned into a pro bono harbinger of justice, whose Bat Signal is a cell phone number. Over the course of this scenery-smashing series, a mysterious foe has been targeting Orphans for assassination. When we last caught up with Evan (2018’s Hellbent) he identified the orchestrator of the killings: none other than the President of the United States, the morally bankrupt Jonathan Bennett. Now, in Out of the Dark, it’s Evan out for blood; in Washington DC to exact revenge on the most powerful and well-protected man on the planet. Piece of cake, right?

Naturally, Evan is side-tracked by a ‘Nowhere Man’ case, but this time it feels like more of a subplot than imperative to the narrative; like Hurwitz was conscious he needed to give readers a break from Evan’s hunt for the President, just to remind readers he’s not exclusively a rogue government assassin, and that he abides by a moral code. When Trevon Gaines discovers his immediate family have been slaughtered by drug-smuggling he inadvertently crossed, he calls Evan’s encrypted line, and thus Orphan X finds himself aiding an intellectually challenged, but incredibly sweet and well-intentioned young man, which leads to a brilliant climactic battle that had me genuinely dumbfounded as to how Hurwitz would write Evan out of a particularly harrowing quandary.

Gregg Hurwitz has crammed an insane amount of action into his Orphan X quartet, but he doesn’t relish in the bloodbaths his characters unleash with stunning regularity. Bodies are bruised and bloodied amidst the chaos, and there’s always a moment of reflection when — win, lose or draw — its perpetrators realise their lives will never be anything but violent; it’s cyclical and senseless, and by mastering its craft they’ve fallen into an inescapable chasm that renders any chance of a normal life impossible. Even when Evan wins, he loses.

Fast, furious, frenetic; Out of the Dark  ends Evan Smoke’s inaugural story-arc, tying off several loose threads from previous novels. Wherever the character goes from here, I’ll be there with him. Nobody writes a better high-stakes action thriller than Hurwitz.

ISBN: 9780718185497
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 448
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 5-Feb-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Promise to Kill by Erik Storey

A Promise to Kill.jpgErik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying was a high-octane series launch, its hard-wired plot and adrenaline-fuelled scenes making it a must-read for fans of thriller-lit. Impossibly, his second Clyde Barr novel is even leaner and meaner, which evokes the spirit of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, but retains its own ingenuity.

Barr is a nomad like Reacher — a hard-as-nails butt-kicker with an irrepressible moral code — but unlike the army-trained protagonist of Child’s novels, Storey’s hero is a self-trained, all of his skills learned on third-world battlefields, or during a short stint in a Mexican prison. He’s rawer than Reacher, cruder, which mightn’t seem an important distinction to readers less indoctrinated in the genre, but makes a difference for those of us who read hundreds of these books a year.

When A Promise to Kill opens, Barr is rushing a newfound friend, Bud Nicholas — a farmer in the Ute Indian reservation in Utah — to hospital with a suspected heart attack. There he meets Bud’s daughter and her son, the trio forming an instant bond, which results in Barr offering his services at the farm until Bud is back on his feet. But contentedness never lasts long in these books, and soon a violent biker gang called the Reapers set up camp ten miles north of town and start making their presence known. Never one to back down, regardless of the odds, Barr quickly makes his presence known to the Reapers, and as the bikers’ interactions with the townspeople become increasingly violent, Barr uncovers their true reasons for basing themselves in the region.

The pace doesn’t let up, events occurring over a few days, and while characterisations are thin, tensions are always high. Storey serves up a story that rarely pauses for breath, and while it might’ve been nice to have a few scenes fleshed out, and the book’s antagonist’s rationality better explained, A Promise to Kill is all about sheer intensity. Storey has mastered the art of making pages turn themselves, and whatever the plot lacks in nuance, it makes up for with its relentless and visceral action.

ISBN: 9781471146909
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 10-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: James Bond, Vol. 2: Eidolon by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters

9781524102722_p0_v2_s192x300Despite the exemplary creative team attached, the first volume of Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond relaunch flattered to deceive. It was  packed with the staples Bond fans expect — shoot-ups, car chases, deadly cybernetically-enhanced henchmen, to name but a few — but lacked that special something. Less akin to Casino Royale, and more like Spectre. Thankfully volume 2 — produced by the same creative partnership of Warren Ellis and Jason Masters — rectifies the first’s missteps, and outdoes its predecessor in every way.

As dirty money is being laundered through MI5 — the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency — the Secret Intelligence Service has been neutered and disarmed. ‘Eidolon’ — another word for ghost, or spectre — has infiltrated the highest levels of British intelligence, and it’s up to Bond to terminate their operation. It’s a simple set-up, as the Bond novel plots have been since day dot, when Fleming wrote Casino Royale; but it means the creators get to focus on perfectly-choreographed, wide-screen action sequences, including one terrifically rendered car chase. There’s a dash of sex, plenty of thrills, and even features a visit to Q Branch, although there’s a distinct lack of high-tech gadgetry.

Ellis lets Masters take charge during the action scenes, limiting dialogue, allowing  these blockbuster moments to occur in silence. Masters pulls it all off with aplomb. It is brutal and visceral, but not gratuitous. But when Ellis does have the characters interacting, he nails their repartee. This is a tight script, full of great one-liners and scything commentary. One moment in particular had me chuckling, when Bond dumps a gun in a bin during an escape, and his companion asks: “You’re going to leave a loaded gun in a bin?” Bond’s reply is perfect: “It’s America. I don’t have time to give it to a child or a mentally ill person, so I’m leaving it in a bin for them to find.”

It is a shame, then, that with Eidolon, Ellis and Masters bid adieu. Just as they hit their stride and manufactured the perfect contemporary James Bond adventure, they’re gone. Still, what an exit. Any comic book reader with even a remote interest in 007 will dig this volume; so, too, any readers looking for a standalone action thriller.

ISBN: 9781524102722
Format: Hardback (267mm x 178mm x 19mm)
Pages: 152
Imprint: Dynamite Entertainment
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Publish Date: 14-Mar-2017

Review: The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz

nowhere-manEvan Smoak, the titular character of Orphan X and its sequel, The Nowhere Man, is a highly-trained professional assassin, plucked from an orphanage as a boy and trained to Jason Bourne levels of badassery. But Smoak turned against his programming — naturally — and escaped their clutches, choosing instead to utilise his skills to help those in dire straits as The Nowhere Man. He lives in an apartment complex, in a unit that resembles the Batcave, and waits for his phone to ring – his equivalent to the Bat-Signal. He has no personal life, no real friends or family: he lives for the mission.

It’s a great setup for a series, which is slightly undermined in this sequel, purely because it strips away much of what made the first novel so great. Sure, the action is non-stop and intensely visceral, and the stakes are ratcheted up to the extreme; but the supporting cast — Evan’s neighbours — barely feature, and the book clings onto his convoluted backstory. I had hoped, with the origin story out of the way, Gregg Hurwitz might provide some first-rate standalone thrillers before returning to Smoak’s past, but that’s not the case. In fact, I’m wondering now if the Orphan X / Nowhere Man series is actually a trilogy, because it feels like, come this novel’s end, we’re gearing up towards a grand confrontation in the next book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it just feels like there’s more to explore with this character and his world.

The Nowhere Man sees Evan ambushed, drugged kidnapped, and held captive at an unknown, isolated location. His captors want money — Evan has access to almost limitless clandestine accounts — and they don’t seem to realise just how valuable he is. Removed from his equipment, Smoak pits his skills against a determined, psychotic crew, while dangerous figures from his past close in.

There’s not much new here, but The Nowhere Man is a fine thriller, punctuated with plenty of action that’ll keep thriller buffs entertained for its entirety. Only Lee Child’s Jack Reacher kicks as much ass as efficiently as Evan Smoak.

ISBN: 9781405910743
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 26-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders

9781760294892.jpgAmerican Blood introduced Marshall Grade, a former NYPD detective, who worked undercover trying to dismantle a particularly vicious crime syndicate, until his cover was blown, and he was forced into Witness Protection. But such was the reach of Marshall’s enemies, he sublet his WITSEC safe-house (much to the chagrin of his handler, Lucas Cohen) in order to circumvent any possible paper trail, and lived under the radar in Albuquerque, until he was forced back into action, and back into the limelight. The result was a stylish, action-packed thriller, which begged for a sequel. And here we have it: Marshall’s Law.

This time round, Sanders’ comparison to Elmore Leonard — John Sanford, too, I think — is more than justified. While Marshall is the titular character, and a hero in the Jack Reacher mould — easy to root for, wholly capable of dismantling any threat without breaking into too much of a sweat — the ensemble cast is intrinsic to this novel’s success. Lucas Cohen makes another appearance — indeed, it’s his attempted kidnap that sparks Marshall’s Law into life, and the question his would-be captors ask: Where’s Marshall?

He’s back in New York, actually — trying to start afresh, still shadowed by his violent past. But he can’t do nothing in the face of a potential threat, which is what he believes the attack on Cohen signifies. So he starts to investigate, and quickly discovers he’s the target of a corrupt businessman named Dexter Vine, who is in debt to some very bad people, and has hired Ludo Coltrane to find Marshall at any cost, who himself brings in Perry Rhode s to assist, whose willingness to be a trigger man can’t overshadow his potential liability to the Vine / Coltrane operation.

Sanders flicks between these characters’ perspectives, building a head of steam, ratcheting up the tension, and bringing the cast together in a wonderfully brutal and bloody climax. Trouble is, there’s not much of a muchness between Cohen, Marshall, Coltrane, Vine and Rhodes. Sure, they’ve diverging desires and backgrounds, but ultimately, they’re boilerplate tough guys. There’s nothing empathic about any of them, or anything particularly quirky or offbeat. That was Leonard’s mastery: taking a formula and embellishing it with his trademark zaniness and humour.

Bullet-holes and body-blows abound in Marshall’s Law. It’s a tightly-constructed, stylish and effective thriller, which confirms Ben Sanders as one of the new generation of thriller writers to watch.

ISBN: 9781760294892
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 1-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The 14th Colony by Steve Berry

9781444795479.jpgSteve Berry has produced another propulsive thriller that won’t live long in the memory, but dutifully entertains. Plenty of thriller writers provide the thrills and spills expected of the genre; few do so with as much style and factual accuracy as Berry.

The 14th Colony centres around a devastating scenario: what would happen if both the president and the vice-president elect of the United States died before taking the oath of office? Would the government survive the resultant turmoil? In this eleventh Cotton Malone escapade, that’s precisely what former KGB operative Aleksandr Zorin has plotted; and armed with like-minded allies, and several decades-old suitcase nukes, he has the capacity to do so. Also involved is The Society of Cincinnati, a fraternity founded after the Revolutionary War, whose desire for a 14th colony somehow ties into the Russian’s plot. Standing in Zorin’s way are the Magellen Billet’s operatives – but with their long-time proponent, President Danny Daniels, on his way out of the Oval Office, they are a fading force, destined for obliteration by the incoming government.

In the opening chapters, Berry posits an allegiance between Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II to destabilize the Soviet Union, which offers such fertile ground for further exploration, it’s almost a shame that alone was not the focus of the novel, as what follows is a fairly formulaic romp. The 14th Colony is laced with plenty of action and fascinating history, and moves at breakneck speed guaranteed to keep readers’ eyes glued to the page —but it’s all very methodical.

The 14th Colony follows Berry’s long line of stellar thrillers, and while this one can sit proudly alongside its brethren, there doesn’t appear any attempt to advance his successful formula. That won’t matter to some – perhaps most – readers, who delve into their annual dose of Berry seeking nothing more than the shootouts, explosions, and historical intrigue he’s guaranteed to provide. But with the series now in double-figures, I’ve a desire for something fresh; perhaps a standalone, which would unshackle Berry from the constraints of his series continuity.

My desire for innovation aside – a decidedly biased condemnation, I am well aware – The 14th Colony is a fine thriller, and a page-turner in the truest sense, blending history, speculation and rip-roaring action.

Buy the book here.

ISBN: 9781444795479
ISBN-10: 1444795473
Format: Paperback  (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 464
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 7-Apr-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

Killing Kind UK CoverChris Holm writes like a supercharged David Baldacci; pared down and raw, with an emphasis on pace. The Killing Kind has all the nuance of a fist punching through drywall. It is a rollicking, white-knuckle thrill-ride starring hitman-with-a-conscious Michael Hendricks, whose one-man crusade against The Council – a conglomeration of major crime families – makes him their number one target.

While Hendricks’s backstory strays into formulaic territory – ex-black-ops, supposedly KIA, his only friend an uber-talented computer whiz – Holm wisely keeps the spotlight off his protagonist’s origin. The novel flits between various perspectives, headlined by Hendricks, his hit-man antagonist, and the two FBI agents trailing them both. Holm cuts between these viewpoints with ease, painting his characters in broad strokes, adding occasional dollops of personality to his chess pieces, but more focused on manoeuvring them into position for their next skirmish.

The Killing Kind epitomises the modern day page-turner; completely void of extraneous detail, it features a high body count and several impressive action set-pieces, the undoubted highlight of which is set in a casino ballroom, where three hit-men, alongside a bunch of FBI agents, converge in thrilling, bloody fashion. This encounter sets the bar high, and it’s a shame the novel’s finale can’t quite reach that apex. Nonetheless, it’s a satisfying full-stop, if not more like an an ellipsis – Hendricks has a vast amount of sequel-potential.

The Killing Kind is a cinematic blockbuster; imagine the crackling energy of Matthew Reilly combined with the bravado of Duane Swierczynski, but with Holm’s own unique spin. Action thrillers don’t come much better than this.

3 Stars Good

ISBN: 9781473606159
Classification: Thriller / suspense
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Imprint: Mulholland Books
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 10-Sep-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom