Monday, 4 February 2013

Review: The Hunters by Chris Kuzneski

The Hunters: Financed by a billionaire philanthropist, this elite team - an ex-soldier, an historian, a computer whiz, a weapons expert, and a thief - is tasked with finding the world's most legendary treasures.

The mission: Fearing a German victory in WWI, the Romanian government signed a deal with Russia to guarantee the safety of the country's treasures. In 1916, two trains full of gold and the most precious possessions of the Romanian state - paintings, jewellery, and ancient artefacts - were sent to the underground vaults of the Kremlin. But in the turmoil of war, the treasure was scattered - and lost. Almost a century later, the haul is valued at over 3.5 billion dollars. Despite hundreds of attempts to find it, its location has remained a mystery... Until now.

Can the Hunters find the treasure and succeed where all others have failed?

I would imagine that there will be some readers who will not get past the first few lines of the above blurb without screaming "cliché!". However, I personally read those few lines and screamed "I want to read that book!". I've mentioned many times in the past, both on this blog, and before it on my book blog for younger readers, that I love action thrillers that have some kind of quest element to them, whether it be hunting down a lost religious artefact with supposedly mystical powers, or like in this case: the lost treasure of the Romanian government. As such, I have been reading and enjoying Chris Kuzneski's books for a number of years, and I had been looking forward to reading this one ever since I first heard about it.

If you've continued to read on past those opening lines of blurb then I commend you for your obviously excellent taste. Yes, the character line-up that make up the eponymous Hunters may sound a little familiar, but think about it for a minute. If you were a billionaire philanthropist who wanted to build a team that you could send out to hunt down and retrieve long lost treasures in this modern age of ours, then would your team be any different? You would need:

Someone to lead a group made up of very different personalities, from very different backgrounds (i.e. an ex soldier)

Someone who is an expert at carrying out research into ancient relics, wartime situations, political geography (i.e. an historian)

Someone who can assist the historian in his or her research and provide technical back-up using a veritable cornucopia of electronic gadgetry (i.e. a computer whiz)

Someone who can protect your team whilst they are in the field (i.e. your weapons expert)

And finally, someone with the breaking and entering skills that may be required to retrieve the hunted for object as and when you find it (i.e. a thief).

Yes, we've pretty much just described in one way or another most of the members of the Leverage team, and maybe one or two of The A-Team and Charlie's Angels, but if you're after a treasure worth millions then you are hardly going to employ a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker, are you? And for me, this team of very different, and occasionally conflicting personalities are a big part of what made this book so enjoyable for me.

Naturally, any author delivering a new 'first in series' book needs to introduce his characters in some way, and I loved the way Kuzneski introduced his team and their various skills. He basically has his billionaire hire them to do a rather dangerous job (stealing from a ruthless and bloodthirsty Russian mafia boss), working together as a team with barely any kind of introduction to each other. If they pull the job off, they pass the test, and they are hired for greater things, not that they know this at the time. It goes without saying that said test is passed with flying colours (no, that isn't a spoiler - if they had failed, then the books would have ended at the second chapter), and once they have agreed to sign up for the quest they find themselves heading for Russia, and the first leg of their mission to locate the lost treasure of the Romanian government, supposedly passed to the Russian for safe keeping all the way back in 1916.

Naturally, in these kind of stories (and I have read more than a few), there is usually a bad guy who also wants to get his or her hands on the treasure, and in this case our team of Hunters find themselves coming up against the mysterious Black Robes, a group that will stop at nothing to reach their goal. Throw in the Russian police for good measure, and our team of heroes may struggle to make it through their first quest alive, especially as the motives of their employer are not entirely clear, and there may be a few crosses and double-crosses ready to jump out and bite them at the worst possible moment.

I mentioned above that I have been a reader of Chris Kuzneski's books for some time, but not all of them have been perfect. His Payne and Jones books have great characters, but in one or two the story has been lacking, and in the most recent one I found the dialogue between Payne and Jones to be rather irritating at times. The Hunters does not suffer from a poor plot, and the dialogue is largely excellent, with only a very small number of occasions where I found it a little unnatural. The characters are still very much a strength though, and not just the main team. In Russia, the team find themselves working with an aged railway worker, and every scene he features in is an absolute delight to read, in much the same way that Petr Ulster, a secondary character in the Payne and Jones books, became something of a fan favourite.

The ending of the book left me wanting a lot more. I want to know more about the billionaire Papineau, and his motivations, especially as Kuzneski keeps this very much shrouded in mystery. I want to know more about the backgrounds of the various team members, and how they ended up on Papineau's wish list for his team of Hunters. And I want to know just what the team are going to be hunting for next. The ending of the book will also have fans of the Payne and Jones books grinning from ear to ear, but thete is no way in the world I am going to explain why here. You'll just have to read the book for yourselves (although if you're a Payne and Jones fan I would imagine you don't need a whole of of persuading from me).

My thanks go to the wonderful people at Headline for sending me a copy of The Hunters to review.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Review: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Jack Glass is the murderer. We know this from the start. Yet as this extraordinary novel tells the story of three murders committed by Glass the reader will be surprised to find out that it was Glass who was the killer and how he did it. And by the end of the book our sympathies for the killer are fully engaged.

Riffing on the tropes of crime fiction (the country house murder, the locked room mystery) and imbued with the feel of golden age SF, JACK GLASS is another bravura performance from Roberts. Whatever games he plays with the genre, whatever questions he asks of the reader, Roberts never loses sight of the need to entertain. JACK GLASS has some wonderfully gruesome moments, is built around three gripping HowDunnits and comes with liberal doses of sly humour.

Before I start this review I feel that I should declare that I teach in the same school as Adam's wife. However, this in no way has any influence on my thoughts about Jack Glass. In fact, despite working with his wife for many years, this is, to my shame, the first of Adam's books that I have read. I've never been a particularly avid reader of adult science fiction, but Jack Glass, and the handful of classics of the genre that I read towards the end of 2012, have whet my appetite and I aim to find the time to read more in 2013.

Based on conversations I have had with science fiction aficionados, and some less than extensive research, I have been led to believe that Jack Glass is possibly Adam's most accessible novel to date, especially where lowly science fiction novices like me are concerned. To use a potentially inappropriate musical analogy, this is in no small part due to its mash-up nature, as Jack Glass is a masterful blending of science fiction with a genre I am much more accustomed to reading - the classic whodunit and locked-room mystery. Although perhaps whodunit would be better replaced by howdunit, as explained in the book's introduction:

This narrative has to do with the greatest mind I have known - the celebrated, or infamous, Jack Glass. The one, the only Jack Glass: detective, teacher, protector and murderer, and individual gifted with extraordinary interpretive powers when it comes to murder because he was so well acquainted with murder. A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I’m sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be precise) three, connected murder mysteries.

“But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I’m no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.

“One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. I can’t promise that they’re necessarily presented to you in that order; but it should be easy for you to work out which is which, and to sort them out accordingly. Unless you find that each of them is all three at once, in which case I’m not sure I can help you.

“In each case the murderer is the same individual — of course, Jack Glass himself. How could it be otherwise?”

So, right from the start we know that a) we are going to be reading a trilogy of three interlinked murder-mystery stories and b) the murderer in each of them is the infamous Jack Glass. As readers then, we are challenged to work out the how rather than the why.

The opening story of the triptych, as  mentioned in the introduction, is a prison story and sees seven convicts deposited inside a hollow asteroid, their prison for the duration of their sentence. In a galaxy where space is at a premium, this has become a highly profitable way of detaining convicted felons. Stranded inside the asteroid, with little more than excavating equipment, an air scrubber and light poles, said convicts are left to hollow out the asteroid, and once their sentence is up this is then sold on as real estate. As readers it is down to us to work out which one of the seven prisoners is Jack Glass, and then how the hell he is going to escape from a hollow asteroid, drifting out in space, thousands, if not millions of miles away from the nearest inhabited settlement. To say the eventual solution is a tad bloody would be something of an understatement, but mystery fans will take great delight in it as long as their stomachs aren't too easily upset.

The second 'story' of the three is by far the longest, and is the regular whodunit of the piece. No longer confined to the claustrophobic interior of an asteroid, the author uses this story to build his world, and gradually apprise his readers of the society, people and politics of his 'universe'. As a sci-fi novice, it was this story that I found to be closest to what my understanding of classic science fiction is, with imaginative and  glossary-requiring concepts. However, the murder mystery thread is running through all of this, and yet again we are left to work out where Jack Glass comes into things, and how the murder is committed.

As we enter the third section of the book we know exactly which of the characters is Jack Glass, but this time we are presented with Adam Robert's science fiction take on the classic locked-room mystery, and yet another delightful puzzle for mystery lovers. 

Jack Glass is certainly a book that can be enjoyed by readers who might usually steer clear of science fiction books. Its intricate plotting make it a truly rewarding read for mystery lovers, who like me will find themselves bemused as to how Adam Roberts manages to have us sympathising with, as actually rooting for, his main character, who is nothing short of a mass-murderer. I'm not sure I feel qualified enough to comment on the science fiction/space opera elements of the book, although this reader found the themes of over-population, corporate power and corruption deeply thought provoking and, more importantly for me, easy to follow.

Jack Glass was one of my favourite reads of 2012, as well has possessing one of my favourite book covers of the year as well. My thanks go to the good people at Gollancz for sending me a copy to review. Jack Glass is currently available in hardcover edition, with the paperback scheduled for a May 2013 release.