I was 12 years old in the summer of 1988, but early into it I remember seeing TV commercials for a movie that looked pretty interesting. It was an action movie that looked intense, but it had the guy from “Moonlighting” in it, so that was a little weird. I still wanted to see it though and several weeks later I did. That movie was of course “Die Hard,” which spawned an almost whole new sub-genre of action films. The original of that genre is still the best though. I loved “Die Hard” and to this day it remains, in my opinion, one of the best action films ever made. Last summer I read “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp, the novel that inspired “Die Hard.” I found it to be just as exciting as the film and in certain ways more emotionally powerful.
So the bar was set pretty high for writers who tell action stories about terrorists taking over locations and the heroes that fight back against them. Well I just finished Greg Rucka’s latest novel, “Alpha” and I’m happy to report that with “Alpha” Rucka does a gold medal winning high jump over that bar and tells a story equal in power, excitement, and heart to both “Die Hard” and “Nothing Lasts Forever.”
In “Alpha” terrorists take over a fictional amusement park known as “Wilsonville.” So what Rucka does in the story is much richer than simply taking the established “Die Hard” formula of terrorists+small location. In having the action take place in “Wilsonville” Rucka is building an entire new world from scratch. It’s not something you often get to see in action thrillers, because usually they unfold in some real world location. Rucka does amazing job building the world of Wilsonville though. You’re given a detailed map of the park at the front of the book, and in the beginning of the book Rucka gives you the history of the company that founded the park and it’s library of characters that populate it. You’re also given glimpses of how the park runs and work. The result is a believable and exciting back drop for the action. Rucka makes Wilsonville feel as real as any of the Disney theme parks I’ve visited.
You need great characters to populate fictional worlds though and “Alpha” has several great characters, the greatest of which has to be its protagonist Master Sergeant Jonathan “Jad” Bell. Bell is a Delta Force operator and a veteran of several violent missions. When we first meet him it appears he’s done with the service, but he’s still haunted by the action he saw and trying to make the most of of a confusing civilian life. So with Jad, Rucka has a protagonist that’s both an every man and extraordinary man. We identify with Jad because he’s a likeable guy with family problems. We also see though that he’s a very dangerous, dedicated and dutiful man. That means watching Jad doing what he does best is thrilling and exciting, but Rucka never lets readers lose sight of the fact that to become a special forces soldier Jad had to sacrifice a part of himself, the part that makes him able to understand and navigate a normal life. That makes Jad a pretty compelling and identifiable hero.
Jad comes to Wilsonville early on as part of an undercover mission. His old colonel, Daniel Ruiz recruits him to take a job as Wilsonville’s top security officer. Ruiz has heard rumblings that terrorists are going to make a major strike at an American amusement park. Unfortunately for him he’s right. And unfortunately for Jad, they choose Wilsonville on the same day his daughter and ex-wife are visiting the park. So for Jad the situation in Wilsonville is both personal and professional, which heightens the tension.
When the attack happens Jad and his allies, a CIA agent and one of the Delta Force operators from his former unit who are also working undercover in Wilsonville, must scramble and stop it. They’re out numbered, out gunned and up against a force that’s taken a number of park employees and guests hostage. Those hostages include Jad’s ex-wife and daughter. Complicating things even further is the fact that these terrorists claim to have a dirty bomb.
So not only do Jad and his allies have to liberate the park and the hostages; they also have to investigate and uncover the true motives of the terrorists who have taken over the park. That means “Alpha” is more than just a slam bang action thriller. It’s also a mystery, and it’s a pretty compelling one too. Throughout the book you’re given clues as to the true nature of the terrorists behind the Wilsonville takeover, but you don’t find out what exactly is happening until the book’s final pages. The solution is both plausible and frightening.
As Jad and his allies try to uncover what’s really going on in Wilsonville and stop it they bump up against an interesting and eclectic supporting cast. The ones I found most interesting included the lead terrorist, who thanks to a compelling characterization by Rucka I couldn’t quite bring myself to hate even though I wanted to. I also really liked Jad’s teenage daughter Athena. Being the teenage daughter of divorced parents means Athena has a pretty interesting perspective. That perspective is made much more interesting by the fact that Athena is deaf. Rucka does a great job of capturing her view point and the way she looks at the world.
“Alpha” is of course more than just great character moments and mystery. It’s also a masterfully paced story full of epic and realistic action scenes. I’m a slow reader, but I read the book in two days and would have read it one if I could have stayed up later the previous night. The fact that these action packed scenes took place in the colorful and fully fleshed out environment of Wilsonville made them even more fascinating.
So this Memorial Day weekend I got to visit a lavish theme park, experience some pretty intense action, and meet some really interesting people thanks to Greg Rucka’s “Alpha.” It was a great way to spend a holiday weekend, and best of all the final pages set up Rucka’s next Jad Bell novel which I’m now eagerly awaiting.
You’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover, but there’s no denying that a good cover is a sure fire attention getter. Stephen Blackmoore must understand this, which is why his first novel “City of the Lost” has a great cover. It’s done by one of my favorite comic artists working today, Sean Phillips. It features a bad ass looking guy with a smoking hole in his chest who is smoking a cigarette on an ominous, but sun drenched LA street. Fans of Phillips work with Ed Brubaker on the current horror-crime comic “Fatale” know that the artist is a master of noir scenes, but he’s also got a great command of the weird and horrific. So that great cover hooked me. I picked up “City of the Lost” and read the synopsis on the back. Those two things combined sealed the deal; I was in.
I’m glad I was too. Crime and horror stories go together like peanut butter and chocolate and “City of the Lost” is a really good crime and horror tale with bits of dark fantasy added for flavor. The protagonist of the book, Joe Sunday, is a leg breaker and enforcer for a low level mobster in Los Angeles. He gets pushed head first into the deep end of the supernatural pool when his boss tasks him with killing a mysterious old man. That’s because Joe’s assassination attempt fails and when he wakes up he discovers that he’s become a unique type of undead with some useful abilities and unhealthy appetites. Joe then has to use his new abilities to navigate the supernatural and criminal underworlds of LA and find a mysterious magical Macguffin that could keep him from falling apart. Of course standing in his way are a strange collection of foes and potential friends.
Joe’s journey is a fun and compelling one partly because he’s such a fascinating character himself. He may be interacting with magic and the trappings of a fantasy story, but he’s definitely not your typical noble fantasy hero. Make no mistake about it Joe is violent, killer. He’s more anti-hero than hero, and because the book is told first person Joe himself reminds you of that on several occasions as he regales you with the things he’s done to people in the past and the things he does to his enemies in “City of the Lost.” He also has enough of an everyman streak in him though that you can identify with and root for him even if there are times you’re not necessarily sure you should. That makes Joe a fascinating and complex character.
Blackmoore then bounces Joe off an eclectic cast of intriguing characters, both mundane and fantastic. They include include a cop haunted by the death of his brother; A Nazi wizard and his thugs, one of which is a razor toothed midget; a social worker turned witch; a mysterious femme fatale; and the main villain of the piece a seemingly immortal wizard.
The presence of wizards and witches means magic is a big part of the setting in “City of the Lost,” and Blackmoore offers up a quick, interesting, and easy to understand explanation of how it works. Spells and rituals can’t be cast willy, nilly. There’s a price that has to be paid and the more powerful the spell the higher the price, not just for the caster, but for all things magical in the area. It creates an interesting ripple effect.
That ripple effect sets up a brutal, bloody, and exciting climax, and that climax is put into motion by a cool collection of action, horror, and classic crime noir moments. Tone wise “City of the Lost” feels like a lot of what I loved about Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series of novels in that involves a brutal, violent, and supernaturally gifted character enduring and dishing out punishment in the name of revenge and a type of justice. The presence of wizards and other monsters also feels like Blackmoore has dipped into another series I loved, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels. It’s a potent, powerful, and fun combination.
So the interior of “City of the Lost” ended up being just as great as it’s cover. Best of all this appears to be the first book in a series. So I look forward to taking another trip down L.A.’s mean, sun drenched, and monster haunted streets with Joe Sunday
When I was a kid I was drawn to horror stories because essentially they were about men and women going into the dark to face monsters, being tested, and walking away victorious. The older I got the more I understood and appreciated the fact that some monsters are all too human and all too often battling these monsters would change people. They were battles worth fighting, but fighting and winning them comes with a cost. When I find a story that can combine that youthful feeling of excitement with the grit and realism of stories that mean something and matter I devour that story. When you find an author who delivers those types of stories on a regular basis you find yourself eagerly awaiting that author’s next book. Jonathan Maberry is just such an author.
In the previous three novels of his Joe Ledger series he’s given readers exciting tales of highly trained soldiers that battle human and man made scientific monsters and the price they pay for doing that duty. In his latest novel, “Assassin’s Code,” the fourth in the Ledger series, Maberry takes his soldiers one step further into the darkness as they come up against mythic and possible supernatural monsters. The result is the best novel in the series so far.
“Assassin’s Code” kicks off in media res and dumps both readers and Joe Ledger into a tense situation. Ledger and his fellow soldiers in Echo Team are in Iran looking for an escape route after accomplishing a successful mission to free some American hikers that the Iranian government has taken hostage. While Ledger is laying low a high ranking member of Iranian Intelligence ambushes him and forces him into a clandestine meeting where he delivers some shocking news; an unknown enemy has rigged several oil fields with nuclear bombs. Ledger and his team must discover who this enemy is and stop the bombs from being detonated before it’s too late.
From there the novel takes off like a rocket. The pacing in “Assassin’s Code” is breath taking. Pacing is something Maberry has always been good at, but I think this is his most exhilaratingly paced novel yet. The main action of the story occurs over the course of only about two days and much of those days are spent running with Joe Ledger as he tries to stay away from a horde of enemies, or with the command and support staff of the Department of Military Sciences, the clandestine organization Leger works for, as they try to decipher the clues to the mystery of what they’re facing. There are some flashbacks that take place months, and even centuries earlier but they are useful and shocking revelations that only heighten the enjoyment of the story.
Speaking of revelations, now we come to spoiler territory. Let’s see if I can dance around it. The primary enemies that Ledger, Echo Team, and the DMS face in “Assassin’s Code” are an ancient order of assassins known as the Red Order. Much of the novel is spent trying to determine what the members of the Red Order are and if they are products of the supernatural or some weird offshoot of science. Maberry does an excellent job handling the revelations surrounding the Red Order. With the ending of the last Ledger book, “The King of Plagues” and some of the developments in this one, especially those surrounding a returning villain from “The King of the Plagues,” it feels like Maberry is guiding his readers into the deep end of the supernatural pool. He’s doing it in the same expert way John Connelly did with his Charlie Parker series of novels. It’s exciting to see.
Since we’re on the topic of the supernatural fans of Maberry’s “Pine Deep” trilogy of novels will appreciate a fun little Easter Egg that links the trilogy to the Ledger novels. It’s the second of such links (the first being a fun short story titled “Material Witness” that is available for download.) I look forward to a later meeting by the survivors of the Pine Deep novels and the members of the DMS.
Character wise, “Assassins Code” is a great mix of old and new cast members. As usual, Maberry gives readers plenty of time inside the scarred, but noble psyche of his protagonist, Joe Ledger. He also gives us some more clues into the past of the most intriguing supporting character in the Ledger series, the enigmatic Mister Church. Echo Team doesn’t get as much time in this installment as previous novels, but you do get to know their three newest members a little more; Khalid Shaheed, Lydia Ruiz, and most importantly my favorite the sniper of few words, John Smith. You also get some time with some reoccurring villains (no spoilers here either!) One becomes a bigger character you love to hate, one has a surprising transformation, and one becomes even more frightening and mysterious.
In terms of new characters we’re given a host of intriguing ones in the form of two rival organizations. The first is a team of all female warriors and assassins known as Arklight, who Mister Church has a mysterious connection with. Their chief operative in the story is a woman known as Violin that assists Ledger throughout the story and has some pretty interesting chemistry with him. The second is the dangerous and powerful Red Order and their leader, Grigor, a bloodthristy and hateful man who has dubbed himself the King of Thorns
When Grigor and his enemies come up against Joe Ledger and his allies the results are some pretty powerful and exciting action scenes. Those of you who have read my previous reviews of the Ledger novels know how much I love Maberry’s action scenes, particularly the ones involving hand to hand combat. “Asssassin’s Code” is packed with those. There are several stand out brutal and vicious fights that really test Joe Ledger’s mettle as a character. Lately, I’ve been reading Jack Kirby’s work on Marvel Comics “Black Panther” series and one of the reasons why Kirby was called “The King of Comics” was because of the visceral and powerful ways he brought to life action scenes. The action scenes in the other Ledger novels and especially “Assassin’s Code” are a pretty good argument for dubbing Maberry “The Jack Kirby” of prose.
The action, characters, plot, and pacing, all combine together for Maberry’s most satisfying Joe Ledger novel to date. The ending of the book really kept me guessing and ended on several very cool notes. The epilogue wraps up several things and also sets the stage for the next Ledger novel, which I eagerly await.
I owe legendary comic writer and artist Howard Chaykin a debt of thanks for introducing me to the works of crime writer Don Winslow. Per Chaykin’s suggestion, I started with Winslow’s magnum opus about the drug war, “The Power of the Dog.” It blew me away and to this day it remains one of my favorite books of all time. After that I quickly devoured Winslow’s other output. Some of them weren’t as good as others, but all were enjoyable, especially the last book I read by him “Savages,” which will soon be a feature film.
I did have problems obtaining one of Winslow’s books though, “The Gentlemen’s Hour,” because when it was released it was initially only released in England. I believe it’s since become available in America, but not before I broke down and bought a paperback copy via Amazon UK. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to the “Dawn Patrol,” but I finally finished and I’m left equally puzzled as exactly how I felt about. Not too puzzled though, because I enjoyed “The Gentlemen’s Hour” it was a lot of fun. I’m just not sure how I would rank it in terms of Winslow’s other work
“The Gentlemen’s Hour” is the 2009 sequel to Winslow’s 2008 novel, “The Dawn Patrol” where he introduced the world to ex-cop, and current surfer and private detective Boone Daniels. What made that book fun was the characters and the world they inhabit. Boone and his surfer buddies in the titular “Dawn Patrol” were all believable, well rounded, very likeable, and often very funny characters. The world they inhabit is the Pacific Beach, neighborhood of San Diego. It’s beautiful and sunny, but there are snakes in paradise. The tone of the town and the novel remind me of some of my favorite Southern California detective shows like “Veronica Mars,” and “Terriers.”
In the “Gentlemen’s Hour” Boone is given two cases that force him to confront how dark and dangerous his world is becoming. The first one alienates him from his friends as his Lawyer girlfriend Petra Hall asks him to help prepare the defense of a teenager who murdered a local neighborhood icon. The second case comes when a wealthy former surfer asks Boone to uncover evidence of his wife’s infidelity.
Both case are darker and dangerous than Boone expects and eventually they start to intertwine a little bit. The thorny revelations that Boone uncovers about both cases are interesting, but if I’m going to offer up a critical look at this book I think the pacing was a little off. I think things were a little stretched out. I was never bored with “The Gentlemen’s Hour,” but I wasn’t as engaged as I was with Winslow’s other books. The book maybe could have been a little shorter.
What did work for the book though was the characters. Boone is still a fun, funny and idealistic guy. He spends most of the novel alienated from his friends, but we still get to see their interesting quirks like Cheerful, the older wealthy man who helps Boone balance the books of his detective agency. Plus Boone’s best friend, lifeguard Dave the Love God, is given some time to shine. Boone does spend most the novel though in an antagonistic relationship with his friend and current cop Johnny Kodani AKA Johnny Banzai. It’s a little hearbreaking, but I suppose that was the point.
The other thing that worked was the colorful way in which Winslow described and added things to the world. His history of the Martial arts and MMA, which plays a role in the story was particularly fun and insightful.
So to sum up “The Gentlemen’s Hour” felt like a by the numbers episode of a favorite TV show. It was good and enjoyable, but not as enjoyable as what you’ve come to expect. Still “The Dawn Patrol” didn’t leave me cold. It had a very satisfying and fun conclusion that left me hoping that Winslow will one day revisit the world of Pacific Beach and Boone Daniels.