Review: The Defence by Steve Cavanagh

The DefenceSteve Cavanagh’s debut novel, The Defence, mixes the tough guy dynamic of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher with the smarts of John Grisham’s legal dramas. Think Die Hard in a New York courthouse; a rocket-fast thriller layered with potential for a long-running series starring the con-man-turned-lawyer-turned-drunk Eddie Flynn.

There’s no elongated set-up; no cliché-ridden soliloquies: The Defence opens with a gun pressed to Eddie’s spine, and his forced induction into crime boss Olek Volchek’s legal team. No sooner has Eddie been pulled off the street, he’s strapped to a bomb and informed his daughter has been kidnapped, and will be killed unless he completes his mission. But Eddie’s job isn’t what you’d expect: to absolve Volchek of his crimes through legal means. Instead he is to act as a suicide bomber, and eliminate the mysterious witness who instigated the trial.

It’s a fantastic setup, and the ensuing pages involve some wonderfully scripted back-and-forth’s between prosecution and defence, peppered with legal jargon (but streamlined, thankfully, for the sake of the narrative) as well as some pulse-pounding action scenes, and moments thick with tension – particularly as the stakes ramp up towards the novel’s end. Double-crosses abound on both sides – Volchek’s scheme may not be as fool-proof as he’d thought, and the men Eddie labels as allies may not be the knights in shining armour he’d hoped.

My issues are few, but glaring. One is a distinct lack of a strong female lead – this is very much a man’s novel, with sparing use of the opposite sex, which didn’t bother me until after-the-fact; I was to focused during my initial read-through to notice the absence. Then there’s Eddie’s history, which is detailed far too extensively for my liking, leaving me wondering whether there’s new territory for Cavanagh to mine in a potential sequel. The novel dips into Eddie’s past, how he became a con man, then a lawyer, and the case that drove him to alcoholism. These interludes – paragraphs rather than pages in length – are fascinating, but I wonder if they deserve elongating in a sequel, or heck, even a prequel. I’m a huge admirer of Lee Child’s decision to shine the spotlight on Reacher’s past in specific novels – The Enemy, set during his military police days, is one of the finest in the series.

But these points don’t detract from my overall enjoyment of The Defence. It made for a fantastic summer-read, hours lost as the pages turned freely. Steve Cavanagh and Eddie Flynn are names to keep an eye out for. I’ll be around for the next one. Guaranteed.

Taken 3: Take It Away

Taken 3 Oh NoTaken is one of my favourite action flicks, right up there alongside The Rock, Die Hard, Con Air, Face/Off  and The Terminator. But unlike Die Hard, which had a couple of decent sequels, and The Terminator, which is the one franchise I’m willing to debate whether the second film was better than the first, Taken’s follow-ups have lacked the lustre of the original. Taken was sharp and brutal; dark and bloody. Its sequels are bloodless, limply-scripted rehashes of action movie set-pieces. They’re a mess, salvaged only by Liam Neeson’s on-screen appeal; and aided in this third installment by Forest Whitaker, who plays a tic-savaged unconventional detective named Dotzler.

Taken 3 is essentially The Fugitive with the action jacked up to the nth degree. Framed for the murder of his wife (given the spoiler-filled trailer, that’s given nothing away) Bryan Mills goes on the run from the police, led by Whitaker’s Dotzler, both of whom follow various investigative threads to uncover the identity of the true killer. Meanwhile, Bryan’s poor daughter, Kim, is once again the target of killers, all the while dealing with a personal crisis of her own (besides her mother’s murder, naturally; the poor girl can’t catch a break).

The plot is overly complex, although it makes sense (just), and scripters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen do their utmost to spice up proceedings with extravagant set-pieces and emotionally nuanced moments, none of which truly pays off. Sure, there are fisticuffs and shoot-outs, and car-chases; but set in Los Angeles, a locale that’s been done to death, it’s all a bit dull. Perhaps director Olivier Megaton could’ve done something to alleviate the film’s staleness; perhaps it was inevitable because of the script. One thing that certainly doesn’t help is the obliteration of the franchise’s maturity. I’m not just referring to blood – although there’s mysteriously none of that here, which is ludicrous given the number of shell-casings that litter each location – but the sheer lack of vigour evident in the action. Where’s the brutality we saw in Taken? There’s no crunch to these punches; no oomph. The action is sufficiently choreographed; but Taken was never about that; it exposed the viciousness of combat, demonstrated its dirtiness. Events in Taken 3 occur with an overstated sheen.

There is a moment, at the midway point of Taken 3, when an LAPD cop tells Bryan that things are going to end badly for him. He retorts: “Don’t be such a pessimist,” (which is perhaps supposed to be a quip; suffice to say, there was nobody in my packed cinema who chuckled). It’s hard not to be, assuming there is s a fourth film in the franchise (despite assurances this is, in fact, ‘the end’). Taken was a fantastic action flick that stood perfectly alone; a shining beacon in a franchise-saturated market. Now, it has become a parody of its former self. Once, people pumped their fists at the mention of Taken; now they roll their eyes; puns inevitably surface: “Who will be taken this time?” It’s a damn shame. I just hope it’s left alone now.

Please, Mister Movie Studio Sir: please don’t bury the original beneath more tripe.

Review: The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly

The Great Zoo of ChinaAfter last year’s comparably sedate novel, THE TOURNAMENT, Matthew Reilly returns in 2014 with the action-packed blockbuster THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA. Think Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” with the raw speed of Reilly’s “Contest” – then up the stakes to a colossal degree. You’ve never read an action novel like this.

Cassandra Jane ‘CJ’ Cameron is our hero. Alongside her brother Hamish, and a cast of ultimately forgettable human allies, she is granted the opportunity to tour China’s newly developed, but intriguingly clandestine zoo. The secrecy was necessary, however, because this isn’t a normal zoo: the animals caged in this enormous man-made arena are in fact dragons, of varying sizes; some as large as airline carriers. Naturally, there are various safeguards in place to prohibit the dragons from escaping the perimeter; various strategies in place should the worst-case scenario occur. And, naturally, all of these failsafe’s fail. When they do, the Great Dragon Zoo of China becomes a battleground for CJ and her friends, as they face titanic-sized aggressors. Soon it’s not just about their survival, though; the dragons are far more intelligent than their human captors have credited them. Suddenly the safeguarding of mankind is in CJ’s hands.

No pressure, right?

Reilly’s latest offering lacks any subtlety. It’s loud and cacophonous – a multitude of exclamation marks pepper these pages – and it’s unapologetic for it. There are the obligatory car-chase sequences and shoot-outs, and death-defying last-minute escapes. Comparisons to Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” are inevitable; they are almost identically framed, with the size of the aggressors being the only real alteration of note; but whereas Crichton’s novel always felt grounded in reality, in theoretical science, THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA is the stuff of sheer fantasy. “Jurassic Park” was genuinely frightening as the dinosaurs stalked their prey; the dragons here are so immense, so impossibly-sized, they become cartoon-like antagonists rather than fearful foes.

THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA is a morass of over-the-top carnage, slight character development, and continuously escalating stakes. It’s a blockbuster only Matthew Reilly could write.

Review: 24 – Underground by Ed Brisson & Michael Gaydos

24 UndergroundJack Bauer is one of my favourite action heroes of all time, right up there with James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher. But after eight seasons, a tele-movie, countless book and comic tie-ins, I’ll admit: the character had grown stale, becoming a caricature of his former self. So when the television mini-series 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY was announced, I tempered my excitement. Four years after the season 8 finale, I had my doubts over Jack Bauer’s return. I was similarly wary when IDW declared they were co-releasing a 4-issue comic book series detailing a key event from Bauer’s ‘missing’ years; 24’s previous comic incarnations were tepid at best. But this time, for 24: UNDERGROUND, IDW assembled a crack creative team consisting of Ed Brission and Michael Gaydos – and it succeeds primarily because it forsakes the core mechanic behind the television series.

24 is famous for its ticking clocking and, obviously, taking place within a 24 hour period. But 24: UNDERGROUND ignores these elements made famous in its filmed counterpart. Events take place over the space of a few hours, but it’s never specified precisely how long. It doesn’t matter. We’re here for Jack Bauer – not for a plot that spans a full day.

Speaking of plot: it’s not the most innovative. In fact, it’s downright derivative of events from previous seasons, especially the first, when Jack’s daughter was kidnapped towards the season’s end. Essentially, since being classified a terrorist, Bauer has adopted a new identity and has formed a relationship with a woman (season 5, anyone?) in Odessa. He’s working for his girlfriend’s husband, who lands himself in some strife when he’s forced to assist in a theft of methylamine. Failure to comply will result in the death of everyone he holds dear. Naturally Jack Bauer won’t stand for that, so he agrees to help Petro get out from under the criminals’ thumbs – and in doing so, sets off a chain of events involving the CIA’s Ukraine office and a villain from his past. The problem is the plot boils down purely to one man’s thirst for revenge against Bauer – which is evocative of the Drazen villains from season 1.

Still, the pages turn quickly, and what the plot lacks in innovation it makes up for in execution. Brisson’s script flits between the various players with masterful deftness, and he throws the obligatory “damn it’s!” into Bauer’s dialogue. Brisson nails Bauer’s character, which is no small feat. Gaydos’ rendering of Bauer is also stellar – Kiefer Sutherland’s likeness is there on every panel, and doesn’t look traced, which is a problem we often see in comics based on film or television properties.

24: UNDERGROUND isn’t essential to the 24 canon – of course it’s not, its core audience doesn’t pay attention to comic book adaptations. But it’s a fun, quick read, and fans of 24 will lap it up and enjoy it. Those less familiar with the character and his long, convoluted history might be less obliging.

Review: Bravo by Greg Rucka

Greg Rucka BravoBRAVO reads like a Tom Clancy novel on speed. Pared down and raw, unlike many of Clancy’s padded efforts, BRAVO is the apex in Rucka’s espionage writing career; the second in the Jad Bell series, and surely not the last.

I wasn’t wholly satisfied with ALPHA, the first Bell novel, despite some exhilarating moments, and the pulse-pounding scenario of a hostage situation in a theme park. I criticised it for leaving too many dangling threads; I appreciated it was intentionally written this way, but felt it didn’t stand alone as a potent addition to an overcrowded genre. I admitted, however, that my opinion was likely to change after reading the second installment, and taking into account the overarching narrative (which doesn’t entirely wrap up in BRAVO, either).

Let me put it this way: after reading BRAVO, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for ALPHA, and together, these two novels represent the finest espionage and thriller fiction I’ve read in years.

BRAVO follows on from the events of ALPHA – beware, newcomers; you’ll want to read this series in order. Bell and his crack team are tasked with bringing in the Uzbek – the man organizer behind the Wilsonville terrorist attack. Of course, this task isn’t as simple as it seems – the Uzbek’s employer, an enigmatic figure dubbed The Architect, has plotted another attack on American soil, this one more devastating than the last – and worse still, it appears shadowy figures within the American government are funding the plot.
On paper, this sounds very formulaic, and to some extent there is a smidgen of familiarity to the narrative. But Rucka makes some intriguing decisions with his prose that really pay off and pushes BRAVO firmly into the A-grade. Rucka implements a distinctive third person viewpoint in the present tense, and he shifts between characters and moments with a deftness only capable by a master of the form. The characters are layered; their self-doubt mingles with the arrogance required of elite soldiers and deep cover operatives. In ALPHA, Bell felt one-dimensional and somewhat plastic: in BRAVO, a story that has far more breadth, we see him for what he truly is, wrinkles and all, and a fine addition to espionage fiction’s highest echelons of characters.

So, read ALPHA, take a moment, then read BRAVO. But take your time. Savour the novels. Because then, like me, you’ll be on tenterhooks waiting for Rucka’s next.

My thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for providing a review copy of BRAVO.

Review: American Assassin by Vince Flynn

American AssassinAmerican Assassin is a prequel that didn’t need to be told.

Prior to this there had been nine novels in Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, and over the course of those books, Rapp’s origin was succinctly illuminated. I never felt like any pieces of his origin were missing; never thought anything needed to be clarified, or desired to know the specifics of his training or the details of his first mission. Some things are better off unsaid. Prequels are dangerous things, in any medium. More often not, they fall flat. Unfortunately that’s the case with AMERICAN ASSASSIN. There are flickers of enjoyment throughout – Flynn’s adept when it comes to the action scenes – but this prequel lacks the excitement of his earlier works, and coupled with a meek plot and a litany of typographic errors, it’s impossible to whole-heartedly recommend. Indeed, I’d suggest skipping this entirely, and starting with TRANSFER OF POWER.

Let’s ignore the errors littered through the novel. There are plenty, that’s for certain – from simple spelling errors to characters appearing out of nowhere. Sections of AMERICA ASSASSIN read like a first draft in need of a strong editors pen. Flynn’s novel seems to have been short-changed in this department, and the novel is all the worst for it. Authors deserve better, but especially bestselling ones, whose names sell books. These mistakes grate as they accumulate, but could perhaps be overlooked if the narrative excelled.

It doesn’t.

The novel lacks the cohesion I’ve come to expect from Flynn. There’s really no need to delve into Rapp’s training, besides proving he’s an elite operatives, and shining the spotlight of his trainer, Stan Hurley’s, bad-assness. Rapp’s proven his brilliance over the course of nine novels – if anything, being so skilled prior to his training damages his authenticity. When the plot focuses on Rapp’s team tracking down elements responsible for the Pan Am Lockerbie’s, the novel zings along. But all too often it grinds to a halt, as Flynn those in random elements, like the sole female character, Greta, who exists as one of the most artificial love interests I’ve ever read. She and Rapp share barely thirty pages together before they’re going at it. The whole relationship feels very trite. Still, as Flynn manoeuvres the various players integral to the plot, AMERICAN ASSASSIN builds to what threatens to be an exciting conclusion, but eventually fizzles out unsatisfactorily. No real shocks. No real surprises. I closed the novel not having hated the journey, but questioning why it needed to be told in the first place.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN isn’t all bad – it’s just not on the same level as (most) of its predecessors. The first published Rapp novel was exciting. TRANSFER OF POWER was brilliant. It is the perfect opener to a series. AMERICAN ASSASSIN doesn’t come close to matching it. Do yourself a favour; ignore the chronological reading list and read the Rapp series in order of publication.

ISBN: 9781849830348
Classification: Thriller / suspense
Format: Paperback
Pages: 528
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 26-May-2011
Country of Publication: United Kingdom