Quick Reviews: ORDER TO KILL and ENEMY OF THE STATE by Kyle Mills (Atria/Emily Bestler)

Flynn&Mills-MitchRapp15&16-1

The latest two novels featuring Mitch Rapp, the CIA super-spy and assassin created by Vince Flynn. I’ve read all of the books in the series, and it remains one of my favourites. These are Mills’s second and third instalments, following The Survivor (which he finished following Flynn’s passing). Both novels show the author becoming ever-more comfortable with the character, developing him, his colleagues, and returning antagonists brilliantly. The series is in very safe hands. I really enjoyed both of these novels.

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Interview with RJ BARKER

BarkerRJ-AuthorPicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is RJ Barker?

Oh gosh, that’s a big question isn’t it? Who am I? People have written whole books on that, well, not on me personally, on that question in general, but I suppose if I did write a book about it that might be a little bit of overkill. I’ll stick with the general perception of people who know me and say RJ (no dots, for dots are the enemy of mankind[1]) is friendly and a bit eccentric. And has big hair.

Your debut novel, Age of Assassins, will be published by Orbit in August. It looks rather interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?

It is part of a series but it’s written so each book stands alone. You’ll get more out of it if you read all three (Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins) but you don’t need to do that to get a complete story. The tagline of book one probably says it best: “To catch an assassin, use an assassin.” Our hero, Girton Club-Foot, is an assassin put into a position where he has to become a detective and stop a killer to save his, and his master’s, skin. It’s exciting and full of action but at heart it’s a murder mystery. It also revolves around the central relationship between Girton and his master who are very much characters (I hope) you will really like. Girton especially is someone driven to do the right thing. And there’s magic, and they ride around on beasts with massive antlers which, to be honest, I would read a book for that alone. I do like antlers. Continue reading

Review: THE KILLING KIND by Chris Holm (Mulholland)

holmc-h1-killingkindukpbAn entertaining thriller introduces us to an interesting new anti-hero

Michael Hendricks kills people for money. That aside, he’s not so bad a guy.

Once a covert operative for a false-flag unit of the US military, Hendricks was presumed dead after a mission in Afghanistan went sideways. He left behind his old life — and beloved fiancée — and set out on a path of redemption…or perhaps one of willful self-destruction.

Now Hendricks makes his living as a hitman entrepreneur of sorts: he only hits other hitmen. For ten times the price on your head, he’ll make sure whoever’s coming to kill you winds up in the ground instead. Not a bad way for a guy with his skill-set to make a living — but a great way to make himself a target.

It took me altogether too long to get around tor reading this series. I thought it sounded great when it was first announced; and, now that I’ve read it, I’m glad to report that it didn’t disappoint. This is an interesting, fast-paced first instalment of a cool new series. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE APPROACH by Chris Holm (Mulholland)

HolmC-H0-ApproachA great introduction to Michael Hendricks

When a strip-club mogul puts out a hit on a dancer who won’t give him off-the-clock attention, Hendricks takes a detour to Las Vegas to stop the job in its tracks. With tech genius Lester in his ear and a fake identity as cover, Hendricks has only one problem: he has no idea what the target looks like. Against the scorching heat of the city’s desert outskirts, a case of mistaken identity nearly turns fatal, but our principled hitman has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve.

To celebrate the release of Red Right Hand, the second novel featuring Michael Hendricks, Chris Holm has written a short story that serves as an excellent introduction or prequel to both the series as a whole, as well as the main character. It’s quickly-paced, has a good twist, and is very well written. We are given a good sense of what drives Hendricks, as well as his methods and skills.

I very much enjoyed this, and fully intend to read the novels ASAP. If you’ve been on the fence about trying the series, then The Approach should definitely convince you to give them a read. Definitely recommended.

Both novels — The Killing Kind and Red Right Hand — are out now, published in the US and UK by Mulholland Books.

Also on CR: Interview with Chris Holm (2012); Excerpt from The Wrong Goodbye

Review: THE TARGET by David Baldacci (Macmillan/Grand Central)

Baldacci-WR3-TargetUKThe third Will Robie thriller sets him and Jessica Reel on a collision courts with the Hermit Kingdom…

The President knows it’s a perilous, high-risk assignment. If he gives the order, he has the opportunity to take down a global menace, once and for all. If the mission fails, he would face certain impeachment, and the threats against the nation would multiply. So the president turns to the one team that can pull off the impossible: Will Robie and his partner, Jessica Reel.

Together, Robie and Reel’s talents as assassins are unmatched. But there are some in power who don’t trust the pair. They doubt their willingness to follow orders. And they will do anything to see that the two assassins succeed, but that they do not survive.

As they prepare for their mission, Reel faces a personal crisis that could well lead old enemies right to her doorstep, resurrecting the ghosts of her earlier life and bringing stark danger to all those close to her. And all the while, Robie and Reel are stalked by a new adversary: an unknown and unlikely assassin, a woman who has trained her entire life to kill, and who has her own list of targets – a list that includes Will Robie and Jessica Reel.

The Target is another great addition to this relatively-new series from Baldacci. Taking the popular central character of government assassin, the author has managed to forge a somewhat original path. The novel is gripping, excellently-paced, and well-researched. As has become the norm with Baldacci’s novels, I really enjoyed reading this. Continue reading

“The Last Man” by Vince Flynn (Simon & Schuster / Atria Books)

Flynn-LastManUKThe final Mitch Rapp novel

An invaluable CIA asset has gone missing, and with him, secrets that in the wrong hands could prove disastrous. The only question is: Can Mitch Rapp find him first?

Joe Rickman, head of CIA clandestine operations in Afghanistan, has been kidnapped and his four bodyguards executed in cold blood. But Mitch Rapp’s experience and nose for the truth make him wonder if something even more sinister isn’t afoot. Irene Kennedy, director of the CIA, has dispatched him to Afghanistan to find Rickman at all costs.

Rapp, however, isn’t the only one looking for Rickman. The FBI is too, and it quickly becomes apparent that they’re less concerned with finding Rickman than placing the blame on Rapp.

With CIA operations in crisis, Rapp must be as ruthless and deceitful as his enemies if he has any hope of finding Rickman and completing his mission. But with elements within his own government working against both him and American interests, will Rapp be stopped dead before he can succeed?

The Mitch Rapp series is in many ways the one that kick-started my passion for international and espionage thrillers. After reading Transfer of Power, the novel that introduced Rapp as the man who takes back the White House from terrorists, I quickly caught up with the rest of the series, and have read every one since. The Last Man is, sadly, the last novel. Flynn passed away last year, after a long battle with cancer. It’s an awkward ending, however. Thankfully, though, while the novel began shakily, it ended strongly. Long-time fans of the series and characters won’t be disappointed, as this is another fast-paced, gripping international thriller, featuring all of the key series characters.

One of the first things to jump out at me was just how aggressive Rapp is at the start of the novel. True, he’s a CIA assassin, who has had a decades-long career killing people all over the world, so how cuddly could he ever be, really? Nevertheless, he came across as far more aggressive and even downright mean when dealing with others. It felt like a real departure from how I remembered the character. The previous two novels Flynn wrote focused on Rapp’s early career, taking us to his first missions working for the CIA. This can, perhaps, account for the apparent shift in character – it’s been years since I read a novel when the ‘present day’ Rapp was at the centre of the story (a couple before the early ear novels focused more on one-time Rapp protégé Mike Nash). I’d accept, therefore, that I just forgot how the character was from before. At the same time (just to add yet more qualifiers), it definitely felt like he was just more aggressive and confrontational by default, rather than as a result of what’s going on around him. Maybe the novel’s naysayers have a point, that Rapp’s special status has made him more arrogant and given him a sense of invincibility (physical and political). He came across as though he was acting more macho and dick-swinging, rather than just being the Most Badass in Any Room.

Given just how much of an asshole he can be, this was one of the first times in the whole series when Flynn wasn’t able to always keep me on Rapp’s side, even when we know he’s pushing the envelope and bending rules just that little bit too far. Despite belabouring this impression, what I’ve come to consider the Rapp normalcy did reassert itself after I passed the 25% mark(ish).

Around this 25%-mark, Rapp is seriously injured, too. It allowed the author and character to take a look at Rapp’s life and SOP with a bit more depth. His memories are all screwed up, many of them missing, thanks to the head injury he sustains. We see him navigating the slow return of memories – both good and bad – and the way he processes them made him a more interesting and nuanced character. The presence of Louie Gould, too, added an extra level of tension (I won’t remind fans who he is, nor will I spoil it for new readers).

His injury is just one of a couple of factors that make Rapp more interesting as the novel progresses. True, he is still preternaturally gifted at his job, but he is kept grounded by mistakes and miscalculations (the cause of his injury, for example, is the result of a rash – though effective – last-minute tactical move). This humanising of Rapp, something that was not always as evident in the earlier novels, I thought was a welcome development – he’s not a super-human, faultless killing machine, anymore.

Flynn-LastManAs the novel continues, we learn of a larger conspiracy, which ended up being pretty well-told. There are the usual forces foreign and domestic working against Rapp, his comrades and CIA Director Irene Kennedy (who is always excellent). The final quarter of the novel is a fast-paced resolution that I could not put down, and I turned the final page at 2am. Flynn’s gift for constructing engaging, briskly-paced thrillers really was superb, and few authors writing in the same sub-genre could match him (David Baldacci and Kyle Mills are perhaps the only two I consider better).

There were a couple of moments when Flynn’s own politics and obvious affection and support for the clandestine and more force-oriented US governmental institutions shines through, coupled with less-than-positive portrayals of diplomatic actors. This doesn’t take up much of the novel, which also means he doesn’t offer the normal balance that I’ve always liked in his novels. The author was known for courting the conservative press in order to promote his novels – fair enough, as a conservative himself, why shouldn’t he? – but the fact that he didn’t lampoon liberals or Rapp’s opponents unnecessarily, always saved his novels from becoming ham-fisted anti-liberal screeds. Villains, foreign and domestic, were appropriately diabolical or (more likely) petty politicians, but were not limited to the Democratic Party. In The Last Man, however, it is far more about the investigation than the political forces at play behind the scenes – which is a pity, as Flynn really was very good at writing that part, too.

In all, then, a very good final novel, if not an excellent one. Nevertheless, I will seriously miss my annual fix of new fiction from Vince Flynn. The quality of his novels will allow them to persevere and, I’m sure, remain in print for many years to come. If you are a fan of international espionage thrillers, then I highly recommend Flynn’s work.

R.I.P. Vince Flynn, 1966-2013

Novel Chronology: American Assassin, Kill Shot, Term Limits,* Transfer of Power, The Third Option, Separation of Power, Executive Power, Memorial Day, Consent to Kill, Act of Treason, Protect and Defend, Extreme Measures, Pursuit of Honor, The Last Man

* This is not actually a Mitch Rapp novel, but a couple of the characters within feature throughout the main series. It’s an excellent novel, too.

An Interview with ANNA KASHINA

AnnaKashina-AuthorPicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Anna Kashina?

I am a biomedical scientist and a writer, not necessarily in that order. My day job is being a professor at a major US university. Writing is reserved for the rest of my time. More recently, I am also a mother of two, which taps seriously into all the other occupations.

Your novel, Blades of the Old Empire, is due to be published in February by Angry Robot Books. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader? Is it part of a series?

I hope readers would see it as an adventure fantasy in the best traditions of the genre, which also includes some elements of romance. It does not push the boundaries or create new concepts, it is intended as a fun, fast-paced read. It is book one of the Majat Code series, with book two, Guild of Assassins, coming out this August. I do have plans for other books in the series and hope to see them forthcoming later on.

KashinaA-MC1-BladesOfTheOldEmpire

What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

As it turns out, these are two separate questions. Generally, my inspiration for writing comes from a desire to get some unresolved emotions out on paper. I can only do it in the form of fantasy, ideally set in a world that does not exist in real life. But a lot of ideas for these stories also come from my dreams. In a big sense, it almost seems as if these worlds do exist somewhere and find their way out into my books.

With Blades of the Old Empire, it was somewhat different. I wanted to write a traditional fantasy. And then, as I sat down to write it, the story just emerged. Once it got going, all I had to do was write it down. So, in this sense, I had an even stronger feeling that not only the world, but this particular story existed somewhere, and just found its way out through me. The feeling was very special, one I still miss.

How were you introduced to reading and genre fiction?

Tolkien-LOTR-1-TheFellowshipOfTheRingI grew up in the former Soviet Union. Back then, reading was pretty much the only form of entertainment available (we had no TV, and people did not go out much). I was reading ever since I can remember; everything I could lay my hands on, but my favorites were always fairy tales and myths, and this probably started my early interest in fantasy. The first true fantasy I read was The Lord of the Rings, and after that I was hooked on the genre.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

Now that I have a publisher, I love it. It means I can focus only on my writing and somebody else will do the rest. Of course, I used to see it differently before I found a publisher and an agent.

I write for enjoyment, and I do have a demanding day job; so, unlike many authors, I don’t have a routine in which I must sit down and write something every day. If I need to write something, I just sit down and write it, whenever I can. But the most rewarding times are when I feel inspired, and then keeping from writing becomes a torture and I literally use every available moment to write. This yields some of my best work.

I usually do research as I write, on an “as-needed” basis. If I feel very inspired, I leave blanks for the parts that need researching, sometimes with a note of what needs to be in there, and then fill these blanks later.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

My first was a self-illustrated “novel” written when I was six years old, which ended with the words “and they sailed to the east, where the sun sets.” When my father politely pointed out to me that the sun actually sets in the west, I was so ashamed that I destroyed that “book”. I am sure it was for the best.

AnnaKashina&VladimirKeilisBorok-NovelMy first novel that I look back fondly on was written when I was in high school, co-authored with my grandfather, Vladimir Keilis-Borok. It is a historical novel about the pirates and Queen Elizabeth of England, written in Russian under pen names. I still think it is very good (probably for young adults) and maybe some day I will translate it into English.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

This is difficult to tell. Personally, I really enjoy traditional fantasy that explores the familiar concepts well. I believe there are not enough such books out there – partly because the professionals in the industry, who have literally seen it all, tend to be attracted to new things they have not seen before. As a reader, I still like the old, and I hope we get more books published in the “good old” style. I hope my book would appeal to readers like myself, those who like to have fun with a book and don’t care about anything else.

My books also tend to have lots of romance (which is even more true about the upcoming Guild of Assassins), and I don’t think there are enough books out there that blend fantasy with elements of romance (usually these two genres are somewhat separate). I hope my books will appeal to the readers who are not straight romance fans, but enjoy good romance elements in their adventure story.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

The Guild of Assassins is the next in the pipeline. It is a sequel to Blades of the Old Empire, even though each of these books can be read as a stand-alone. I am working on book three in the series.

RabyA-H&T1-AssassinsGambitWhat are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

At the moment I am reading Amy Raby’s Hearts and Thrones series: a great example of traditional adventure fantasy with elements of romance. I am enjoying it very much. I mostly read non-fiction at work, so even though I do have several historical reference books on my shelf, they are on hold for the moment.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I hope, that English is not my first language…? (Unless, of course, my name already gave it away.)

I grew up in Russia and came to America as an adult, so for the first few years I was really conscious about my limitations in the English language. At that time, I felt that if I could make one wish, it would be to know English as well as I know Russian. I feel that in the past decade I have achieved that state, and possibly switched to English as the dominant one.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Well, I am both anticipating and dreading the release of my books. I hope readers will like them, and sitting around and waiting is just so unnerving. I am sure many authors can relate to this feeling, of pouring out your soul, defeating impossible odds, putting your work out there, and waiting for the reaction it would cause… All in all, fingers crossed!

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Blades of the Old Empire is published by Angry Robot Books in the UK on March 6th and in the US and eBook format today.