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Book Review- “The Cartel” by Don Winslow

CartelYou ever experience a story that is just so exciting, compelling, and powerful it just kind of leaves you dumb struck? Or a tale that’s so entertaining and informative that it’s awe inspiring? It’s happened to me a few times. I remember walking out of the movie “Heat” just feeling dazzled and overwhelmed by the powerful and complex tale I had just witnessed. It happened again on a regular basis while watching the HBO series “The Wire.” It’s also happened with graphic novels like Jason Aaron’s “Scalped” series from Vertigo and in prose novels like James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid.”

That feeling also came to me during and after I finished Don Winslow’s epic drug war novel “The Power of the Dog.” It was one of the best books I ever read. It’s an amazing 30 year crime saga. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now! I’ll be here when you get back. So Winslow set the bar pretty high for epic crime sagas, which meant I was both excited and a little nervous when I heard he was working on “The Cartel,” a sequel to the “Power of the Dog” which would unfold over the course of 10 years. It turns out I was right to be excited and silly to be nervous. Because I’m happy to report that “The Cartel” is also one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it may even be better than “The Power of the Dog.”

Winslow’s “The Power of the Dog” revolved around a sprawling cast of characters but at the book’s center was the relationship between DEA agent Art Keller and drug lord Adan Barrera. In “The Cartel” Winslow returns to Keller and Barrera who continue to be fascinating characters. The experiences of the last book have fueled their enmity and continue to haunt and drive them. So watching their feud flare back up and seeing the directions it goes feels natural, organic, and heartbreaking. These are two deeply flawed protagonists and like all great crime fiction neither character is entirely good or entirely bad despite the fact that they’ve been cast in the roles of lawman and lawbreaker.

The Keller-Barrera rivalry is sort of the center of “The Cartel” but a whole host of fascinating characters are drawn into their don_winsloworbit. We meet the staff of a Mexican newspaper, various drug traffickers, sicarios, soldiers, and civilians trying to navigate the dark and dangerous place their world has become thanks to the drug war in Mexico. What’s great is for pretty much all of these characters you’re swept right up into their stories right away. Some you don’t meet until hundreds of pages into the book, but when you do meet them their part of the world is really interesting and continues to be even more interesting. Plus like Keller and Barrera, many of these characters are also complex and flawed. Some are stubborn people taking a heroic stand, some are idealists losing their way, some are bullies and murderers that I hated with passion, and some are drug dealing killers that I almost sort of rooted for.

The action and story in “The Cartel” is exciting and fascinating. You’re dropped into the middle of gun battles and lightning fast commando raids. It’s also kind of a gut punch though too. Make no mistake, this is a novel about war. People die. Some of them in horrible ways.

So “The Cartel” is a novel that will break your heart. Winslow describes the horrors being perpetrated by the Cartels and their associates in a powerful and haunting manner. You really feel for the people caught up in the nightmare that is life in a country where violent drug cartels dominate almost all aspects of life. Making things even more powerful is the fact that Winslow did a lot of research for “The Cartel.” Many of the characters have been fictionalized, but many of the events and the organizations that perpetrate them are real.

Winslow uses that research and his characters to present a truthful and frightening argument against the drug war. It’s a war where only the rich and powerful profit. The poor and middle class are chewed up and spit out. Winslow also convincingly argues that much of the horrors and evil perpetrated on Mexico and it’s people is the fault of America’s appetite for drugs. People are tortured, murdered, sold, and exploited in Mexico because in my country life has gotten so horrible for some people that they feel the need to escape their life with drugs.

On the back cover of “The Cartel” one of my favorite writers, Michael Connelly, proclaims, “There is no higher mark for a storyteller than to both educate and entertain. With Winslow these aspects are entwined like strands of DNA. He’s a master and this book proves it once again.” Having finished the book I must wholeheartedly agree with Connelly. “The Cartel” is the best type of fiction it moves you, excites you, and makes you think. It’s a hell of a book; one of the best I’ve ever read.

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Categories: Book Review

Book Review- “Grey Knights Omnibus” by Ben Counter

Grey Knights Omnibus 2014

When most people think of Warhammer 40,000 they imagine it’s trademark power armor clad, genetically engineered, super human, bad-asses the Space Marines. I was introduced to Black Library’s thrilling series of 40K novels via another fascinating character type though, the agents of the Imperial Inquisition. If the Space Marines are the Supermen of 40K characters than the Inquisition are sort of the Batmen– well a mixture between Batman, James Bond, and the hunters of “Supernatural” if they existed in a high tech setting. So they’re morally gray, very human bad-asses that can embark upon a variety of stories. I loved that about them. That human quality was what kept me from reading Space Marine stories for awhile.

That was my loss. Having recently read the first five entries in the Horus Heresy series and the stories that make up Nick Kyme’s “Salamander” omnibus I now see that the genetically enhanced soldiers of the Adeptus Astartes can be fascinating characters in their own right. So I was very intrigued by Ben Counter’s “Grey Knights Omnibus” which combines Space Marines with the Inquisition since the titular characters serve as the Chamber Militant, or private army of the Ordo Malleus, the branch of the Inquisition charged with hunting demons. Adding to my excitement was the fact that Counter penned probably my favorite entry in the Horus Heresy books I’ve read so far “Galaxy in Flames,” the series third book. Having now finished the three books that make up the “Grey Knights Omnibus”: “Grey Knights,” “Dark Adeptus,” and “Hammer of Demons” I’m happy to say the book was even better than I expected it to be. I loved all three books, especially “Hammer of Demons!’

Like any great Warhammer 40K novel the books that make up the “Grey Knights”omnibus feature a lot of action and Counter is great at staging a variety of different action scenes. We get hostage stand offs in massive high tech office buildings that have been taken over by demon worshipping cults, a massive melee battle between power armor clad Grey Knights and the medieval warriors of a feudal planet, cat and mouse pursuit involving techno-demons and sinister bio-mechanical warriors, a finale to the second novel that has to be read to believed (I’m not spoiling it here!), and a whole series of really cool hand-to-hand and insane large scale battles in the third novel. Counter expertly stages these scenes. The pace of them is fun and exciting and you feel their impact.

As a bonus you also get some really cool scenes of space ship combat. You don’t often get outer space combat in 40K novels Ben Counterwhere much of the action takes place on the ground, but the “Grey Knights Omnibus” featured some exciting space battles that came about organically and added some tension and excitement to the larger narratives.

There was so much diverse action in the Omnibus because in each book Counter told three very different types of stories. The first book in the series “Grey Knights” was the type of story you initially think about when you’d imagine a group of demon hunting Space Marines affiliated with the Inquisition. In it Justicar Alaric and the fellow members of his Grey Knights squad are tasked with aiding an Inquisitor investigating a prophecy about a powerful demon prince escaping his prison in the otherworldly dimension known as the Warp. “Dark Adeptus” is sort of a “behind enemy lines” style story where the world of the Grey Knights collides with the world of Warhammer 40K’s mysterious tech priests, the Adeptus Mechanicus. It follows Alaric, the other Grey Knights from his squad that survived the first book, some members of the Inquisition, and an expedition of tech priests as they explore a mysterious Forge World, the technological centers of the Imperium of Man, that has suddenly reappeared after vanishing over a century ago. Then the final book “Hammer of Demons” finds Alaric trapped on a hellish demon world; an entire planet dedicated to the worship of the murderous Chaos God, Khorne.

I loved that Counter gave us three distinct stories. It gave the book a nice variety and it also added towards what’s become one of my favorite aspects of Warhammer 40K novels; the travelogue feel to them. It feels like authors of Black Library’s 40K books really strive to give the planets where their stories take place unique feels. In “Grey Knights” Counter took readers to several very different and distinct worlds. In the latter two novels the author took the chance to explore in depth two strange and inhospitable planets. So setting was very much a big part of these novels for me and really added to the larger stories Counter was telling.

Action and setting are fun elements of course, but they don’t necessarily make for good stories. Good characters are key for good stories and in his “Grety Knights Omnibus” Counter presents us with a fantastic lead character in the form of Justicar Alaric. Over the course of the three tales you really get to see Alaric grow and change. It was fun and exciting to watch and it was not unlike what Dan Abnett did with his protagonist in his amazing “Eisenhorn” trilogy of novels, which were my introduction to Black Library’s “Warhammer 40,000” fiction line. Part of what made Alaric’s journey so fun was watching him deal with the complications and difficult choices that come with fighting demons and seeing how that affected his faith in the God Emperor of Mankind (An almost deity like figure that the humans and many Space Marines of 40K revere and in some cases outright worship) and his duty to humanity.

You really get to see that in “Hammer of Demons” which in some ways was a difficult book to read because I was really invested in Alaric as a character by that time. Ultimately though “Hammer of Demons” was the best of the three books in the Omnibus though and one of the best 40K books I’ve ever read. Again, I don’t want to spoil much, but the book’s setting of a world conquered by demons means Alaric undergoes an epic journey that challenges his faith and devotion to duty and forces him to grow as a person. It’s thrilling and powerful stuff and featured some real moving quotes about hope and humanity.

Alaric wasn’t the only interesting character in “The Grey Knights Omnibus” either. Over the course of the three novels you meet some complex heroes and vile villains. My favorites were Inquisitor Ligea, Alaric’s battle brother Dvorn, Interrogator Hawkespur, and the demonic Duke Venalitor who I really hated.

So if you’re a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, or are looking for a good place to get acquainted with it for the first time, pick up the “Grey Knights Omnibus.” It’s a hell of a read that’s fun, exciting, poignant and powerful. It left me wanting more from both Ben Counter and the titular demon hunters of the Ordo Malleus.

Categories: Book Review