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Monday, August 12, 2019

Reading List: True Believer

Carr, Jack. True Believer. New York: Atria Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5011-8084-2.
Jack Carr, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, burst into the world of thriller authors with 2018's stunning success, The Terminal List (September 2018). In it, he introduced James Reece, a SEAL whose team was destroyed by a conspiracy reaching into the highest levels of the U.S. government and, afflicted with a brain tumour by a drug tested on him and his team without their knowledge or consent, which he expected to kill him, set out for revenge upon those responsible. As that novel concluded, Reece, a hunted man, took to the sea in a sailboat, fully expecting to die before he reached whatever destination he might choose.

This sequel begins right where the last book ended. James Reece is aboard the forty-eight foot sailboat Bitter Harvest braving the rough November seas of the North Atlantic and musing that as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy he knew very little about sailing a boat in the open ocean. With supplies adequate to go almost anywhere he desires, and not necessarily expecting to live until his next landfall anyway, he decides on an ambitious voyage to see an old friend far from the reach of the U.S. government.

While Reece is at sea, a series of brazen and bloody terrorist attacks in Europe against civilian and military targets send analysts on both sides of the Atlantic digging through their resources to find common threads which might point back to whoever is responsible, as their populace becomes increasingly afraid of congregating in public.

Reece eventually arrives at a hunting concession in Mozambique, in southeast Africa, and signs on as an apprentice professional hunter, helping out in tracking and chasing off poachers who plague the land during the off-season. This suits him just fine: he's about as far off the grid as one can get in this over-connected world, among escapees from Rhodesia who understand what it's like to lose their country, surrounded by magnificent scenery and wildlife, and actively engaged in putting his skills to work defending them from human predators. He concludes he could get used to this life, for however long as he has to live.

This idyll comes to an end when he is tracked down by another former SEAL, now in the employ of the CIA, who tells Reece that a man he trained in Iraq is suspected of being involved in the terrorist attacks and that if Reece will join in an effort to track him down and get him to flip on his terrorist masters, the charges pending against Reece will be dropped and he can stop running and forever looking over his shoulder. After what the U.S. government has done to him, his SEAL team, and his family, Reece's inclination is to tell them to pound sand. Then, as always, the eagle flashes its talons and Reece is told that if he fails to co-operate the Imperium will go after all of those who helped him avenge the wrongs it inflicted upon him and escape its grasp. With that bit of Soviet-style recruiting out of the way, Reece is off to a CIA black site in the REDACTED region of REDACTED to train with REDACTED for his upcoming mission. (In this book, like the last, passages which are said to have been required to have been struck during review of the manuscript by the Department of Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review are blacked out in the text. This imparted a kind of frisson and authenticity the first time out, but now it's getting somewhat tedious—just change the details, Jack, and get on with it!)

As Reece prepares for his mission, events lead him to believe he is not just confronting an external terrorist threat but, once again, forces within the U.S. government willing to kill indiscriminately to get their way. Finally, the time comes to approach his former trainee and get to the bottom of what is going on. From this point on, the story is what you'd expect of a thriller, with tradecraft, intrigue, betrayal, and discovery of a dire threat with extreme measures taken under an imminent deadline to avoid catastrophe.

The pacing of the story is…odd. The entire first third of the book is largely occupied by Reece sailing his boat and working at the game reserve. Now, single-handedly sailing a sailboat almost halfway around the globe is challenging and an adventure, to be sure, and a look inside the world of an African hunting reserve is intriguing, but these are not what thriller readers pay for, nor do they particularly develop the character of James Reece, employ his unique skills, or reveal things about him we don't already know. We're half way through the book before Reece achieves his first goal of making contact with his former trainee, and it's only there that the real mission gets underway. And as the story ends, although a number of villains have been dispatched in satisfying ways, two of those involved in the terrorist plot (but not its masterminds) remain at large, for Reece to hunt down, presumably in the next book, in a year or so. Why not finish it here, then do something completely different next time?

I hope international agents don't take their tax advice from this novel. The CIA agent who “recruits” Reece tells him “It's a contracted position. You won't pay taxes on most of it as long as you're working overseas.” Wrong! U.S. citizens (which Reece, more fool him, remains) owe U.S. taxes on all of their worldwide income, regardless of the source. There is an exclusion for salary income from employment overseas, but this would not apply for payments by the CIA to an independent contractor. Later in the book, Reece receives a large cash award from a foreign government for dispatching a terrorist, which he donates to support the family of a comrade killed in the operation. He would owe around 50% of the award as federal and California state income taxes (since his last U.S. domicile was the once-golden state) off the top, and unless he was extraordinarily careful (which there is no evidence he was), he'd get whacked again with gift tax as punishment for his charity. Watch out, Reece, if you think having the FBI, CIA, and Naval Criminal Investigative Service on your tail is bad, be glad you haven't yet crossed the IRS or the California Franchise Tax Board!

The Kindle edition does not have the attention to detail you'd expect from a Big Five New York publisher (Simon and Schuster) in a Kindle book selling for US$13. In five places in the text, HTML character entity codes like “&8201;” (the code for the thin space used between adjacent single and double quote marks) appear in the text. What this says to me is that nobody at this professional publishing house did a page-by-page proof of the Kindle edition before putting it on sale. I don't know of a single independently-published science fiction author selling works for a fraction of this price who would fail to do this.

This is a perfectly competent thriller, but to this reader it does not come up to the high standard set by the debut novel. You should not read this book without reading The Terminal List first; if you don't, you'll miss most of the story of what made James Reece who he is here.

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