Author: Greg Rucka
DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.
p187 "...wondering what she doing..." should be "...wondering what she was doing..."
p187 "...whom she was seeing." doesn't sound right at all - "...who she was seeing." sounds better.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I went into this not expecting to like it, and feeling that it was going to be a chore. I felt this because I thought I'd finished with Greg Rucka's efforts. I started reading his stuff because of an article he wrote on strong female characters, and I went on to review (unfavorably as it happens) Alpha, Lazarus, and Whiteout, so it was a bit disconcerting to discover this one unexpectedly showing up in my approved box from Net Galley (I'd forgotten I'd requested it!). But a deal's a deal so here's my honest review.
The main two female characters in this novel are "Zoya, who is Jordan Webber-Hayden" (more on that, anon!) and Petra Graziella Nessuno. Neither of them is a strong female character. Both of them are shown to be sadly dependent upon men (one upon the male protagonist and one upon the male antagonist!), and are sorely lacking in other ways, too, so no strong female characters in this outing just as there were none in volume one.
Here's one problem in this regard: The word "beautiful" appears twice in the first thirty-two pages to describe two women. Not once in those same pages did the word 'smart' appear (except to describe a cell phone and the male soldiers). In describing these women there was neither 'thoughtful', nor 'reliable', neither 'interesting', nor 'funny', neither 'tough', nor 'sensitive'. Not even 'tomboy'. Not 'pretty'. Not 'good-looking'. Not even 'valuable' or 'asset'. It had to be beautiful.
Beautiful was the only adjective worth relating vis–à–vis women in this novel! That's the only value they evidently hold. On page 43 the 'B' word appears once more to describe main character Jad Bell's wife, because again, what possible value could she have if not that? Note that my issue isn't with labeling a woman 'beautiful', although it’s rather redundant since most women are in one way or another. My issue is with only labeling them 'beautiful' as though nothing else counts, and with a writer who can only reference them that way.
Bell is the main protagonist - the male protagonist - and Amy is the woman to whom he was married until recently. Perhaps the reason she's his ex is that 'beautiful' is the only thing he can ever think of with which to credit her? She was a cheerleader after all! Or is it the fact that the first thing he does when he goes to visit her is complain that he doesn’t like the house because it has bad 'sight lines" and ask her if she still has the shotgun?
Neither Bell nor his wife are very smart. She still blames him for what happened in the previous novel, when she and their daughter were unwilling and terrified parties to an assault on a theme park by terrorists. In fact Bell had done everything he could to warn her away from visiting that day - short of giving away classified information - but his dumb-ass wife refused to listen to her terrorist-expert husband. That's not the reason they're divorced, but maybe it ought to have been; it certainly would have made the novel a more interesting read.
Whether we’re supposed to intuit this lack of intellect from a photo Amy apparently still has of herself and Bell in high school, wherein he's a football jock and she's a cheerleader, I don’t know. Yes, it’s clichéd and bigoted to suggest that, but that's the common perception, and we’ve been offered nothing to suggest otherwise and plenty to support it in this novel.
The fact that the author himself references the cliché inherent in it makes it no less of one, and the clichés keep on coming. His daughter is named Athena (goddess of warfare, inter alia), and she smells like apples, of course, because having her smell like roses or ocean breeze wouldn't be anywhere near tough enough nor American enough, nor would it imply that she was a teenager ripe enough to be eaten.
This overly protective cliché wherein Bell is depicted as thinking, and worse, acting like both his ex and his daughter need to be swathed in bubble-wrap is far too much. It demeans Amy and Athena and is rather nauseating. There are better ways of showing love and concern than this clunky method, whereby the more I read about those two adults, the more convinced I became that they're not fit parents. I'm assuming that's not the feeling with which the author intended to invest me, but here's a thought: if Bell is so concerned about his family, why in hell doesn't he simply quit the military, and do something else for a living? Now there would be a story.
Athena's parents couldn't be mathletes of course, because you know there is no way in hell such 'losers' would ever be allowed into the US special forces! But could they not have been photographed at a swim meet? At the prom? In the science lab? Naw, that last one is out of the question for the same reason that the mathletes are. Only jocks need apply in a story like this.
This kind of thing is the very reason that I wasn't looking forward to reading this after my first outing with this trope series. I don’t mind me some macho. I don't even mind some cliché and trope if it’s done well, but to get this relentless cliché trope machismo when readers like me are begging for something new, anything trending differently, a bit off the beaten track, something fresh, is just depressing. It's truly sad to find so many authors so unwilling to be inventive, and so many publishers so loathe to allow, much less encourage travel off the beaten track.
Down to business: this novel begins some 72 hours after Alpha when Bell's special ops team are in process of capturing Vosil Tohir known as The Uzbek - the villain from volume one. Why is it them, as opposed to another special ops team? No epxlantion. This team is fresh from a brutal mission in which soldiers were killed, and in which others were wounded. The team is at least two members down so where is the rationale for sending them on another mission immediately, with a new and untried team member borrowed from another squad?
Well there's a "reason" for that latter item which I'll address below, but not for the rest. Remember, this isn't about how tough soldiers are. That's a given, especially for organizations like Delta Force. No, this is about how smart the military is, and apparently we're supposed to believe that our military isn't too smart and has no back-up. You know, the simple act of setting these events a month later instead of just 72 hours would have solved almost all of these issues! Just saying....
Here’s another problem. There's way, way, way too much code-naming in play here in the first few pages. In addition to the oddball, but predictable macho and soldierly code names, we get: "The Architect", "The Lover", "The Soldier", "The Uzbek". It was very confusing and annoying, especially when each of them had real names. It's like listening to someone laying out tarot cards for a reading and just as risible.
Particularly annoying was the endless repetition of variations on "Zoya, who is Jordan Webber-Hayden" Yes! I get it. I don't need it repeated endlessly, including twice on page 166 in the space of eighteen lines! There came a point about two chapters in when I gave up even trying to keep track of who was who and just let it ride, hoping to catch-up later (assuming I decided to continue reading).
Another real nails-on-chalk-board habit of the author's is his indiscriminate use of the rewind button. By this I mean that he would tell the story, then stop and rewind and tell the same thing over again, but from another character's perspective. This frequent halting of the action with the subsequent shuffle and repeat added nothing to the enjoyment and it was extremely frustrating, not least for the fact that there wasn't any way to tell, until you had read on a little way, that there was a rewind in progress. It was as annoying as hell.
Jad Bell's continued involvement with processing The Uzbek after he'd been rendered was way out of control. I'm neither government nor special forces, so I'm not an expert here by any means, but special forces are tapped to do what they're exhaustively trained to do and what they do impeccably well, which is to achieve the mission objective. Well, their mission objective was met and met well - as we've come to expect form these people. There is no reason whatsoever why Bell needed to be involved after that. There's no reason why he needs to be part of the interrogation or transportation of terrorism suspects, yet he's in it all. I found that totally unbelievable.
For that matter, there are a lot of actions in this novel which make no sense - like having the US miltiary operate on US soil in roles that the FBI, the US Marshall service, and others should be fulfilling. It made no sense either that an outsider would remain drafted onto Bell's team after the initial mission. Clearly this was only done for the purpose of facilitating what happened afterwards, which made this part really clunky, especially given the conduct of this man (Tom O'Day). I found it unbelievable that someone in his position would do what he did. It felt completely out of character for the kind of person he'd been portrayed as and was actually an insult to special forces.
This novel had started to grow on me. It's significantly better than the first volume in this series, and it was very slowly improving, but then we got the interrogation, the transportation, the running down of a terrorist, the tailing of a suspect, and none of it rang true. Bell and Nessuno had no place doing the things they were doing and this actually compromised the mission. Both are guilty of serious errors involving misconduct and poor judgment. Indeed, their incompetence loses them a major player on the terrorist side. And where does Bell get off issuing orders to someone who isn't in his chain of command, and who is not seconded to his team? And where does she get off blindly falling into line with those orders? What is she, his handmaiden? So much for strong female characters. Again.
What really got to me in the end was the fiction. Not the fiction that the author is writing, but the fiction that this is a series about some kind of super soldier, because Jad Bell isn't. The bottom line is that he's incompenent and unaccountably meddling in things for which he has no expertise. Now I don't expect a character to be flawless. I expect flaws and problems, and occasional errors, otherwise where's the interest?
One of the joys of reading a good novel of this type is to see a character screw-up monumentally and then get it together and triumph, but this is not that novel. That kind of story has the guts to have the character actually own their issues. Screwing-up in this series is SOP: no-one even thinks twice about it! That's how low standards are here. I sincerely hope our special forces aren't this shoddy and incompetent. Nothing I've ever learned about them leads me to believe they're as bad as Jad Bell, so where then is my motive to offer any allegience to this series?
These guys had the chance to take down two of the major players bloodlessly, and they failed. One of these players died in the process. At one point, the kingpin is held at gunpoint and allowed to walk away. There is a reason given for this which is acceptable, but then we discover that the reason he was even able to get into the home of this family in the first place was that he'd killed the security team which was watching the house. He then sits around chatting with the mom waiting until the daughter gets home, for no explicable reason. he has the mom clal her husband to propose the deal this guy wants.
He leaves and we're treated to a description of the phones and other possessions he took from the guys he killed, which mentions that there is a host of messages on the phones asking the security team members where they are and why they're not responding. Now these are people who were watching the house because of a terrorist threat. the terrorist is in there for some significant time, yet not one single vehicle shows up to check on the unresponsive security team? NO-ONE COMES TO CHECK ON THEM BECAUSE THEY WENT DARK UNEXPECTEDLY????????????????? No one calls the house? This is nothing but lazy writing at best, and bad writing at worst, and that's all there is to it. Stick a shiv in this one. It's done.