Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Three, So-So

A cool retro silhouette decorates the cover of Brett Battles' 2016 romp The Excoms, which is absolutely fitting for what is essentially a comic book without pictures.

Five lethal specialists from both sides of the law find themselves disavowed from their most recent employers and shanghaied with an offer to go to work for a mysterious outfit called "The Committee." Their work would be extralegal and in some cases downright criminal, but it turns out all five are in a place where they've got nothing to lose so they take the offer. Their first job: locate several kidnapped students who are being held for ransom, before the ransom can be paid or the students left to their fate.

Naturally, the team is full of witty and bickery tension that slowly develops into mutual respect for their various skill sets. Two of the characters, assassin Ananke and wheelman Ricky Orbits, have appeared in Battles' Jonathan Quinn series as minor characters, and the book's epilogue seems to suggest a crossover is in the works.

Battles is too skillful to leave the five as one-dimensional ciphers even though he doesn't waste a lot of space or effort to differentiate them from each other or from the archetypes each represents. And he wields his usual skill with action sequences and high-tension suspense, not meandering, stalling or padding his narrative with anything it doesn't need. There's nothing wrong with The Excoms, which makes for a pleasant diversion that probably won't stick in the memory longer than it takes to drop the book off at the used book store. But it can't be pressed into much heavier service than that, so it remains to be seen if that can hook enough readers to make the series continue.
Gibson Vaughn went into the Marines to avoid jail -- literally. Convicted of computer-aided attempts to destroy the career of then-Senator Benjamin Lombard, he was presented with the choice of enlistment or imprisonment by his trial judge. Now out of the Marines, his life is no easy road thanks to Lombard's vengeful nature. So in spite of his suspicions, he accepts an offer from Lombard's former chief of security to help track down Suzanne Lombard, the senator's daughter who disappeared without a trace 10 years ago.

Vaughn's close friendship with Suzanne helps sway him to join the hunt. But the cold trail 10 years old suddenly offers a pretty warm reception and he may disappear himself before he can find out what happened to Suzanne in Matthew Fitzsimmons' 2015 debut The Short Drop.

The mystery at the center of Drop is properly twisty and turny, but Fitzimmons can't really seem to focus in on any of his characters well enough to keep them consistent from scene to scene or situation to situation. When the conspiracy at the center of a story is nice and convoluted, then it's important that the characters can keep pulling us along as they wind through it. But if we can't get a good handle on them then it's tough to follow them on their journey, and Fitzsimmons leaves a lot of blurry edges. The unsavory aspects of more than one lead character and the coincidental introductions of several others weaken the story as well. A third Gibson Vaughn novel is expected later this year, so Fitzsimmons may have gotten the firmer grip on his story and his characters that would be needed to make subsequent novels exceed the very average Short Drop.
CIA analyst Kera Marsal had a bright future at the agency before she decided to take an offer to join a private company that was "sort of" of allied with official covert agencies but able to operate with a little freer hand and some different resources. Her employer tasks her with learning what's happened in the case of several creative-minded folks who've seemingly vanished from the face of the earth -- something that you'd think impossible in the 21st century. She finds a connection but it only poses more questions and also starts to draw links to the multimedia titan ONE Corp., which may have more interest in the outcome than they should -- and which may have a distinctly predatory dimension.

2014's End of Secrets was Ryan Quinn's second novel and first thriller (The Fall was a kind of modern take on A Separate Peace). It has an interesting premise that stems from real as well as imagined concerns about the modern "surveillance state" and what could happen once its technology wasn't just held by the state. But for a CIA analyst with high potential Kera has an uncanny ability to make dumb decisions for pretty much no reason beyond advancing the plot -- they have no organic flow at all. Quinn spins out storylines that don't really lead anywhere and never tie back into the main plot, and none of his good-guy-and-gal characters seem to be aware that their enemies have superlative surveillance technology -- even though they're surrounded by it -- until after it burns them.

It's possible that some of the dangling plot threads were meant to be picked up in the second Kera Mersal story, The Good Traitor, but Quinn hasn't done much to close the deal with the readers about whether more time with Kera is really something they want to spend.

No comments: