Quick Review: THE BREAK LINE by James Brabazon (Berkley/Penguin)

brabazonj-mm1-breaklineushcAn assassin sent into the field with limited information, confronted by a bizarre, deadly mystery in the jungle

British intelligence operative and hardened assassin, Max McLean, battles a nightmarish enemy in this stunning debut thriller from an award winning war correspondent.

When it comes to killing terrorists British intelligence has always had one man they could rely on, Max McLean. As an assassin, he’s never missed, but Max has made one miscalculation and now he has to pay the price.

His handlers send him to Sierra Leone on a seemingly one-way mission. What he finds is a horror from beyond his nightmares. Rebel forces are loose in the jungle and someone or something is slaughtering innocent villagers. It’s his job to root out the monster behind these abominations, but he soon discovers that London may consider him the most disposable piece in this operation.

I’m so used to reading thrillers and spy novels starring American protagonists — be they independent contractors, CIA or FBI agents. It was therefore quite refreshing to read James Brabazon’s debut novel. It is, at times, wonderfully British in idiom and style and it left me a little homesick. It should definitely still appeal to an international readership, however (as a Brit living overseas, however, there were things that struck a chord of nostalgia). Overall, I enjoyed this quite a bit. A promising start to a new series.

Brabazon’s experience overseas and working in connection with security issues comes through in the novel, and informs some of what his characters go through: there are a lot of great details — large and small — of McLean’s actions and experiences in Sierra Leone. The environment feels very real, full-fleshed out without spending too much time describing and establishing the setting. His characters are all interesting, distinct and realistic — even those who lean a bit towards Bond-villain-esque.

That being said, Brabazon uses McLean’s mission to explain some of the horrors that have wracked various African nations: civil wars, rebels, child soldiers, terror tactics, and so forth. In fact, this reality on the ground is often used by outside forces to provide cover for their own actions and agendas. (I won’t go into any more detail.)

brabazonj-mm1-breaklineukpbThe novel moves quickly. The novel starts by giving us a quick introduction to a pivotal event in McLean’s training to become a “legally sane psychopath” (his superior’s term for McLean and others of his training), then a short mission before he receives his primary assignment and off he goes to Sierra Leone. The first two components give us a good insight into McLean’s character: he is a curious blend of cold and moral, compassionate and a highly efficient, capable killer. We get to see some of McLean’s competencies over the course of the novel, which allows Brabazon to sprinkle in some fascinating details of the practices and realities of the SOPs of operatives such as this. (I have no idea how realistic, but I’m inclined to believe that there’s a high level of verisimilitude given Brabazon’s earlier non-fiction book, My Friend the Mercenary.)

What starts as a seemingly-typical government-assassin-sent-on-a-job novel morphs into something all the more sinister in the final act. It reminded me a bit of James Rollins’s novels, with some weird science goings on, but not as far-out as the Sigma Force series. (This should certainly appeal to fans of Rollins, as well, though.) As the novel progresses, we see more of his character unveiled, as well as his background and early experiences that have gone on to inform his approach to his work and the people and world around him. McLean’s mission is far from straightforward, and it was interesting to see how he adapted to the changing situation(s) on the ground.

If you’re looking to start a new thriller series, then I think you may well be pleased with what you find in The Break Line: some sleuthing, plenty of action, great locations and solid, realistic characters. As a character McLean falls pretty squarely in what one expects from the genre, while never feeling like a carbon-copy of other authors’ creations. He has a healthy scepticism of his superiors’ motives and agendas, which, given that he works in intelligence and the blackest of black ops, is a healthy mentality to hold. At one point, for example, he notes that “The very best that could be said of my briefing by MI6 and Captain Rhodes was that it had been woefully inadequate.”

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next book in the series. Recommended.


James Brabazon’s The Break Line is out now, published by Berkley in North America and Penguin in the UK. The second novel in the series, All Fall Down, is due to be published in North America by Berkley in January 2020 (no news of a UK edition at the time of writing, strangely).

Also on CR: Interview with James Brabazon (2019)

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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