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.