Dark Age by Pierce Brown: The blood-dimmed tide is loosed… / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.

Dark AgeDark Age

by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising, #5

Hardcover, 800 pg.
Del Rey Books, 2019

Read: August 9 – 16, 2019

From a distance, death seems the end of a story. But when you are near, when you can smell the burning skin, see the entrails, you see death for what it is. A traumatic cauterization of a life thread. No purpose. No conclusion. Just snip.

I knew war was dreadful, but I did not expect to fear it.

How can anyone not, when death is just a blind giant with scissors?

This will not end well

Lysander au Lune has a few thoughts along those lines pages after falling in an Iron Rain on Mercury, but this was one of the more striking examples. For a “bad guy,” he’s awfully easy to identify with. He’s trying to establish an alliance between the remnants of the Society and the Outer Planets to crush the Rising once and for all, and so has to curry favor with Atalantia by joining in the counter-attack on Mercury. This attack does not go well for anyone—both armies and the civilian population on Mercury took on incalculable losses, provoking a lot of thoughts like this on both sides, I’d imagine. And that’s just how this novel starts

It’s been almost a week since I finished Dark Age and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it—plot, characters, and ramifications of the events of the novel—and I don’t think I will anytime soon. I’ve joked (online and IRL) that I’ve used “brutal” in every post I’ve written about this series (at least once) and I was going to have to get a new thesaurus to help me come up with alternatives before I wrote this—not just so I’d add a little variety to the posts, but primarily because it just doesn’t seem to be descriptive enough about what happens here.

Iron Gold shows us what can go wrong as a society throws off the shackles of tyranny, but is still learning how to act with a replacement for that system. And it wasn’t pretty. Dark Age is all about what happened right after Iron Gold how does Darrow follow-up his dramatic act on Mercury? How do the remnants of the Society react to that? Can Virginia maintain control of the government (and should she?), and what’s going on with the kidnapped children and the kidnappers?

None of the answers to those questions are easy, and it’s hard to like any of the answers you might find. But man, what a book. Brown surprised me time after time after time and I have no idea what to expect for the next volume. You find yourself hoping that Character X will survive whatever dire situation they’re in, but you almost hope they fall now, because whatever is coming up next for them is going to be worse, much worse.

For a change, this isn’t primarily Darrow’s story. But even as I say that I want to object. The opening chapters are full of him, but after the first 100 pages or so (I’m estimating because I had to take it back to the Library already), other characters—primarily on the Moon and Mars—get the majority of the space. At the same time, there’s not one page—not one paragraph, really— that isn’t in the shadow of Darrow. His acts, his movement, his intentions, his affects on various individuals and/or society at large. Even if the Red Rising is put down and the demokracy is defeated, it will be generations before Darrow’s impact is forgotten. So, yes, he’s sidelined for most of this novel, but ultimately, it’s still all about Darrow.

I can’t take the time to talk about everything that I want to, but if anyone’s going to defeat Darrow/the Rising, I wouldn’t mind if it was Lysander. Sadly, Lysander wouldn’t be alone, and his allies aren’t as honorable or noble (actual nobility, not hereditary titles) as he is—so I hope he goes down in flames.

Yes, I didn’t think Iron Gold was necessary—or as good as the initial trilogy (while I did enjoy it)—but as it paved the way for Dark Age (and whatever comes next) I’m not complaining. This was probably the best thing since Red Rising (in many ways, probably superior), and I’m once again invested in this series.

Brown’s writing has never been better—this is his biggest book to date in terms of size and scope. Yes, it’s an investment of time, but not one that’s impossible to surmount (and is totally worth it). It’s a longer book, with more characters, more perspectives and more potential to surprise the reader (both in this book and what comes next). It’s like he took Yeat’s “The Second Coming” and said, I wonder what verse 1 would look like in the Red Rising Universe?

I can’t do justice to this book, I just can’t. There’s not an ongoing SF series that I can recommend as highly as this, and whatever flaws there might be are dwarfed by the strengths to the extent that I can’t even enumerate them. If your interest post-Morning Star has waned, I encourage you to give this a shot. If you’ve never tried this series, do not jump on board here. Go back to Red Rising, and after you’ve endured (and loved) the emotional battering that follows, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

“What does Mars mean to you, Nakamura?” I ask.

The Terran hesitates. “Hope. And you, my liege?”

“War.”

Virginia says a lot in that last syllable (even ignoring the pun). It sounds ominous there, and I think it tells us everything we need to know about the rest of this series.

—–

5 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

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A Dangerous Man by Robert Crais: A Routine Errand leads to a Rescue Mission for Joe Pike

A Dangerous ManA Dangerous Man

by Robert Crais

Series: Joe Pike, #7/Elvis Cole, #18
Hardcover, 339 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019
Read: August 8, 2019

Pike clipped his .357 to his waist, and went to his Jeep. Sometimes Pike enjoyed silence. Sometimes the silence scared him.

There’s nothing like a riveting scene to start off a Thriller, right? So naturally, Robert Crais starts this Joe Pike novel with Pike waiting in line to make a deposit at his bank. Talk about a nail-biter.

Yeah, that was snarkier than it needed to be. Honestly, I thought the scene was amusing — you don’t think of Pike doing routine things like that, and having the tellers gossip about him was cute. Right after that, this becomes a Pike kind of story—as he’s getting into his Jeep, he sees the teller who’d just been helping him being violently forced into a vehicle that drives away. Pike calls the police and intervenes before the kidnappers can do anything to Izzy.

The kidnappers are arrested, and Joe Pike has become a hero in a young woman’s eyes. Just another day for Pike, really, except his opponents are breathing okay. Neither the police, Izzy or Pike can figure out why she was taken — it’s not for money, she has none; there was no indication of sexual assault; and no one to ransom her to. Yet these two men committed this brazen act in mid-day with many witnesses around (including one witness that decides not to just watch).

A few days later, the kidnappers have been shot and Izzy is missing. Pike is spurred to action — and calls in Elvis to handle the investigation side of things while Pike secures her home and tries to insure her best friend is safe, before trying a different tack than Elvis to discover who took Izzy. It’s not long before Elvis finds himself entangled in a web of family secrets, lies, and murder — in addition to kidnapping.

It’s then a race to find out why Izzy was taken, as well as by whom and where. Despite not knowing her well, Pike’s devoted to saving Izzy and making sure those who took her won’t be in any position to threaten or hurt anyone again.

Joe Pike is in full-on protector/sentry/guardian angel mode here. He feels responsible for Izzy after rescuing her once, and once she goes missing, it’s a given that he’ll devote all his time and energy to rescuing her again. Elvis isn’t quite as invested, but he’s close and catches just enough brakes to get a full picture of what might drive people to kidnap Izzy and who they just might be. He’s also back to being full of quips and isn’t afraid to tweak the LAPD’s nose a little bit.

This is possibly the best John Chen story arc yet, it’s tertiary to the main story, but pivotal when it comes into contact with the primary story. But there’s more drama, more real emotion and tension of John than we’re used to. It was pretty cool to see how this one wrapped up, and how other characters worked to get it there. Do I expect that this will have any change on John’s character in the future? Of course not. But it was a good use of the character.

Very frequently, the clients that Joe and Elvis take on are utterly hopeless and are aware they’re totally dependent on the Joe and/or Elvis in their situation. Usually, part of Joe’s interaction with them is to show them they can rely on themselves, to find their strengths, maybe develop some. But Izzy and her best friend, Carly, don’t need that. Yes, they’re clueless about how to act in this dangerous situation — kidnapping, guns, and violence, in general, aren’t parts of their world, and they need experts to help with this (as 90+% of us would). But otherwise, they’re confident, they know their place in the world and are enjoying life. This does not stop the two of them doing things that are monumentally stupid (understandable, but stupid). But it’s a different arc than we’re used to, and it was pleasant to see these kinds of characters.

Without ruining anything, I’ll just note that Crais is better at bringing back — even if it’s just by dropping their name — old clients than most PI series. I’ve always liked that, and this book is no exception.

Crais is at the top of his game — this book takes place over a very short period of time and the urgency of the story is reflected in the prose. If you don’t get sucked in and gripped by the neck by this story, there’s something wrong with you. I tried to take my time and savor it, knowing it’ll be a while before we get another. But nope, Couldn’t do it, I had it finished about 13 hours after I started it — and it’s only family/work responsibilities that kept me from making that even briefer. There are some laughs; some quiet, reflective moments; but mostly, it’s pedal-to-the-metal action. Which is exactly what you want in a Joe Pike novel. The writing is crisp and compelling from the opening scene to the superb closing line.

Is this accessible for a new reader? Yup. Don’t let the fact that this is the 18th novel with these characters dissuade you, this is a perfect way to meet them and to see why Crais has been a bestseller for quite some time now. A Dangerous Man is as close to perfect as a thriller can be, and is probably the best thing Crais has done since 2013’s Suspect. Don’t waste time, go get it.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Pub Day Repost: Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh: Eddie Flynn, a Serial Killer and a “Trial of the Century”

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh
Series: Eddie Flynn, #4
eARC, 336 pg.
Flatiron Books, 2019

Read: July 26 – 29, 2019

I wanted this posted a day ago, but just a couple hours after finishing it, I wasn’t capable of discussing it in a meaningful way—unless you consider gibberish with intermittent “squee”s and a lot of exclamation points meaningful (and, I suppose it is, in a fashion). I think I’m a bit better now, but I’m still having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I’ve discussed each of the prior Eddie Flynn books in the last couple of years here—and each one has been a little better than its predecessor. This is no exception—but I’m not sure if Eddie Flynn #5 will be able to top this one (equalling it will prove difficult enough).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before he’s had time to fully absorb—much less react to—some devastating personal news, Eddie Flynn is approached by one of the biggest, flashiest, best-known defense attorneys in New York to be his second chair in an upcoming murder trial. He’s not interested, at all—even after the money on the table is mentioned. But he eventually agrees to meet with the accused to decide if he believes in the client’s claims of innocence.

Robert (Bobby) Solomon is an actor on the verge of super-stardom. He’s one-half of a Hollywood power-couple with a reality show and a couple of movies together that are responsible for this status. He also stands accused of killing his wife and their security chief after finding them in bed. Eddie believes him and signs on. The media (social and otherwise) is abuzz with the killings and is circulating plenty of rumors, innuendoes and speculation about Bobby and his wife at this time, as they cover “The Trial of the Century.”

The prosecution’s case is almost overwhelmingly strong, but with some creative thinking, Eddie and his investigator dive into the case, coming up with a strategy for his defense—including ways to attack the prosecution’s case. His investigator is the FBI Agent Harper from The Liar, who has since quit the Bureau and is doing PI and security work with her former partner (this was a great move by Cavanagh, she’s the best character from that book not named Flynn).

Still, that’s a daunting target and an almost impossible feat. But what makes it worse? The actual killer—a serial killer, mind you—is on the jury and is committed to getting a guilty verdict. What a great hook, right?

It is hard, almost impossible, to give readers a serial killer as unique as this one. He’s not as charming or intelligent as Dr. Lecter (but close on the latter), he’s not as obviously sick and twisted as most fictional serial killers. There’s not a trace of sexual sadism or anything like that to his modus operandi (which is not to say there’s none in his past). He’s smart, he’s careful, he’s strategic and committed to his vision. He’s got some natural gifts that help him—and an ally that assists him (a non-lone wolf serial killer, I don’t know if I’ve seen that before).

What separates this killer from the rest is the motivation behind his killings and victim selection (and how he makes them a victim). Yes, he’s clearly mentally ill—psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies (if he’s not diagnosable with either), and he enjoys his work. But there’s an ethos, an ideology behind his work. He’s got a message for the world, a lesson he’s trying to teach people. Everything he does is toward this goal, toward living out this ethos. I absolutely loved this, and the more Cavanagh showed this was behind the killing (and eventually, killings), the more we saw of the motivation, the more I liked it (and the more impressed I was with the creation of this killer).

I want to go on a few more paragraphs about him, but I can’t without spoiling everything—so let me stress this is a great, and unique, serial killer.

While dealing with this case, Eddie also has some family problems he’s trying to address, and there are some NYPD cops out for him after embarrassing a detective on the witness stand. Eddie spends more time in danger from members of the NYPD than he does from the killer.

Harry, of course, is back—which is great. He’s more involved in this case than he has been since the first book, The Defense. He’s a judge, Eddie’s former mentor and current self-appointed guardian of Eddie’s alcohol intake. He’s a great friend and ally for Eddie. We also see the return of Arnold Novoselic, the jury consultant that caused so much trouble for Eddie in The Defense, this time, however, he’s on Eddie’s side. From a one-dimensional bad guy in book 1, he’s transformed into someone Eddie has to—and then can—rely on. There’s a new prosecuting attorney, and he’s a great character and a worthy competitor for Eddie.

No matter who’s writing the legal thriller, one of my favorite parts of the book is the narrator/protagonist giving the reader insight into how the judicial system functions—the nitty-gritty stuff about scheduling trials, deciding who to put on your witness list, the order you call the witnesses in, and so on. The reader gets plenty of that here—along with two (complementary) explanations why attorneys on either side of the case just don’t want anything to drive a judge to sequester a jury. I’d never thought of that before, but it rings so true. Eddie also gives a very detailed explanation about how the skills that made him a successful con artist make him a successful trial lawyer. Because I enjoy it so much, I could’ve read a whole lot more of this “behind the scenes” material if it’d been possible for Cavanagh to work it in. Still, I think we get more of that here than we have before.

The pacing on this book is intense—Eddie being hired, investigating, the trial and the outcome all take place in a week. A business week, Monday – Friday, to be specific. That’s just insane—and improbable. But you don’t stop to doubt it while reading. Even after finishing the book, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time wondering about that, because Cavanagh sold the timeline so well. It doesn’t feel rushed at all, however, it just feels like an intense thriller.

While driving the pace that hard, no corners are cut in the intricacy of the story. There are surprises, twists and turns enough to satisfy every reader, and enough courtroom shenanigans to compete with Mason or Haller. The penultimate reveal got me calling Cavanagh some pretty terrible names—not because I didn’t like the reveal, not because Cavanagh cheated in the way he told the story, but because he fooled me. It was all there, ready to be seen, but like a good magician, Cavanagh kept my eyes on what he was doing with one hand and ignoring the —he totally hoodwinked me. I admire that in an author but despise myself for falling victim.

Is Thirteen a decent jumping-on point to the series? Oh yeah, a great one—but you might find yourself a bit underwhelmed if you then go on to read the previous books (just a bit, that that’s only in comparison to this). For those of us who’ve been with Eddie for a while? This is a noticeable progression in quality. Cavanagh’s no longer a promising new author, he’s a reliable established veteran. Cavanagh’s been accumulating plenty of awards lately, and Thirteen demonstrates why and absolutely deserves the critical and award attention it’s been receiving. But better than all of that? It’s a riveting and rewarding read—entertaining, tense, and satisfying. Go get yourself a copy now and you can thank me later.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Flatiron Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

5 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Reposting Just ‘Cuz: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Here we are with the second of today’s Pierce Brown reposts. Even if Golden Son isn’t really volume 2 of a trilogy anymore, everything else I said about it still stands. There are few writers who can jerk me around like Brown can—he plays with emotions and expectations like Yo-Yo Ma on a cello. And I wish he’d lighten up on his readers, but I don’t expect that he will anytime soon (and I really don’t want him to, it just feels like it).

Golden SonGolden Son

by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising, #2

Hardcover, 442 pg.
Del Ray, 2015
Read: February 3 – 4, 2015

I glimpse Gray police standing over arrested Brown vandals who covered an apartment complex with the image of a hanging girl. My wife. Ten stories tall, hair burning, rendered in digital paint. My chest constricts as we pass, cracking the walls I’ve built around her memory. I’ve seen her hanged a thousand times now as her martyrdom spreads across the worlds, city by city. Yet each time, it strikes me like a physical blow, nerve endings shivering in my chest, heart beating fast, neck tight just under the jaw. How cruel a life, that the sight of my dead wife means hope.

As you start this book you’re thinking, this is going to be Red Rising continued — Darrow’s got a good steam and he’s going to continue to rise and learn. And then, you finish the first chapter and see how horribly wrong you were.

The important thing to remember while reading Golden Son: this is the 2nd volume in a trilogy. What does that mean about the book as a whole, especially the ending? Think: The Empire Strikes Back, Kinslayer, Catching Fire, The Deaths of Tao, The Two Towers, and so on. It’s going to get dark, it’s going to be messy, things are going to look bad for Darrow and his group.

Time and time again, Brown suckered me with this book. I got comfortable, got in a groove with the narrative, figured he’s about to zig and he’d zag. 30-50 pages later, we’d do the same thing again . . . and again. Up to, and including the final zig when I was sure he was about to zag. The number of times that a narrative gut punch was delivered as Brown was pulling the rug out from underneath you was enough to make you feel like you were one of Darrow’s crew on a bad day.

I read this at what turned out to be a busy time for me, so I couldn’t get to blogging about it then — I don’t remember many of the details (pretty sure the good ones are spoilery anyway), so I can’t get too specific about things. But I do remember the experience of reading it. This was just a brutal read — and each time Brown sent me reeling, I wanted more.

This was the second book in 2015 that I gave 5 Stars to. Since then I’ve read better books — some of which I’ve rated lower — but the way this book grabbed me, the way it made me feel while reading it? It earned the 5 Star then and still deserves it now.

I can’t wait for the conclusion, Morning Star this coming February.

—–

5 Stars

Reposting Just ‘Cuz: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Time got away from me this past weekend—and not just because I wrote one post that turned about about 3x as long as I’d figured (which is fine, I had a lot of fun with my family, just didn’t write as much as I wanted to). That’s just a nice way of saying that I couldn’t shut up (you’ll see in a couple of hours). But I wanted to get something else up today, and since I’m knee-deep in Brown’s Dark Age at the moment, I figured I’d repost what I wrote about the first two books in the series. Glancing over it, I agree with everything I said, but kept shaking my head like Leslie talking to Ann: “You are a beautiful, naïve, sophisticated newborn baby.” This was one of my Top Reads of 2014 and the series is one of my most beloved. I urge you to jump on this runaway train if you haven’t yet.

Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1)Red Rising

by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising, #1

Hardcover, 382 pg.
Del Rey, 2014
Read: Feb 26 – Mar 6, 2014

I’m having a hard time deciding what to say about this one. To really talk about it would require me spoiling every plot point that I loved (most of which I didn’t see coming). So I won’t. I’ll just say that I really, really dug this book.

I don’t want to just compare this to The Hunger Games, as much as reviews/blurbs/etc. make a guy want to. There are some surface-level similarities, yeah. And you could make the case (as I did when just starting the book) that Brown’s Mars was just the place for people who thought Collins’ Panem was a bit easy. In fact several parts of this feel like The Hunger Games dialed up to 11. The working/living conditions for Darrow and his family are more severe, what Darrow has done to him to prepare him for what’s to come makes what Cinna et al. do to Katniss look like child dress-up, Darrow plays a deadly game on a larger scale than Katniss, and so on. But Darrow’s motivation is different than Katniss’ — she’s trying to survive, he’s trying to do far more (and much of the time, survival’s pretty low on his list) — the stakes he’s playing for are greater, and he will go to lengths that Ms. Everdeen doesn’t have to.

There are a few moments when things seem too slow, or meandering, or even redundant — but each time, I was wrong, and Brown made it all pay off. Visceral was the word that kept coming back to me as I read the book. I had almost visceral reactions to some of the horrors depicted, I could feel the grime and muck (literal and metaphorical) that Darrow crawled around in.

This shows every indication of leading to something epic in the next volume, leaving Mars behind and moving to other planets and/or the space between. As well as seeing if Darrow can retain his self and purpose — and how far will he be willing to go to carry it out.

There is a classic SF reference in Part IV that made me giggle with delight (in the middle of a pretty grim part of a fairly grim book, so I appreciated the placement). I won’t spoil it, but Pierce Brown has bought a lot of loyalty from me with two simple words.

Go grab this one.

—–

5 Stars

The Bitterest Pill by Reed Farrel Coleman: Paradise, MA comes face to face with the Opioid Epidemic

The Bitterest PillRobert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Series: Jesse Stone, #18
eARC, 368 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: July 31 – August 3, 2019

Well, it’s pretty clear that Don Winslow has left his mark on Reed Farrel Coleman—there’s a quotation from Winslow on the so-called War on Drugs as the epigraph to this novel. Jesse cites it and alludes to it later in the novel. It’s a good line—catchy and insightful (and, not that it matters, I agree 100% with it)—don’t misunderstand me, but I’m used to Robert B. Parker characters citing Shakespeare, (Edmund) Spenser, Shelley, and songs from the late 60s/70s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quote someone contemporary. The latest focus of most of our country in that War is the Opioid Crisis, in The Bitterest Pill, that epidemic shows up in Paradise, Massachusettes—partially fulfilling Vinnie Morris’ prediction to Jesse that Boston crime was on its way to Paradise.

A student at Paradise High—the daughter of a city councilman—dies of an overdose and the city is rocked. It can’t be the first drug-related death in its history, but this was a different kind of thing. She’s not an obvious user, cheerleader, from a well-to-do family, and so on. Not the kind of person that Paradise is ready to believe would be an addict or that would die of an O.D.

What’s obvious to Jesse and his team is that if they don’t shut down the supply chain that fed this girl her drugs, she won’t be the only death, she’ll just be the first. This sets Jesse on a Hunt through Paradise High School and Boston’s underbelly. There’s a moment that made me think of Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth (which just means that Connelly and Coleman have both done their research into the ways prescription drug rings work, not that Coleman’s copying anything)—but there’s a difference. Bosch is trying to deal with a situation, he’s involved in busting a ring as a means to an end. Jesse? He’s trying to protect his town it’s personal—and the ways that this particular ring is trying to invade Paradise are more diverse than what Bosch dealt with.

Skip this next paragraph if you’re worried about Colorblind spoilers.
I avoided talking about the new character Cole last time out, because, how could I? I’m on the fence with him, honestly. I don’t see where he was necessary—Jesse has Suit to father (although, at this stage, Luther doesn’t need much), he’s got the weight of the city on his shoulders, what’s added to the character by this relation? On the other hand, scenes with him are done so well, and Jesse’s different with him. I really enjoy him—he’s not the Paradise equivalent of Paul Giacomin, thankfully (nothing against Paul, we just don’t need another one), he’s a different kind of character (as Jesse was compared to Spenser and Sunny).

Speaking of Suitcase, I think I’ve loved everything Coleman’s done with him (every major thing, anyway, there might have been a scene or two that I forgot about), other than not using him as often as he could. But there’s a scene with Suit and Cole in this book that is so well done that it’s one of those passages I could read from time to time just to smile at. He’s come a long way. Molly seemed a little under-used, but she was good whenever she showed up and did get to shine a bit. I think Coleman overplayed the difficulty of Molly doing her job because of the way this case impacted Paradise’s children a bit (really not much), and, as always, he’s too dependent on bringing up the incident with Crow in relation to Molly. But on the whole, Suit, Molly and the rest of Paradise PD came off pretty well.

For awhile under Coleman and Ace Atkins, Vinnie Morris seemed more dangerous, more of a wild card—less “tamed.” But both the way that Atkins has used him the last time or two and here he seems to be tacking back to a friendly criminal who’s too willing to help out the non-criminal element. Frankly, I prefer the less-tame version, but as someone who’s enjoyed Vinnie since he worked for Joe Broz ages ago, I don’t care, I just like seeing him on the page.

After the very effective use of the mayor recently, I was surprised at her absence in this novel—not that there was room for anything like that.

There’s really one more supporting character that we should talk about—Alcohol. Jesse’s greatest foe (although, you could argue he’s the enemy and alcohol is the tool he uses to attack himself, but…eh, let’s make this easy and say alcohol). He may be clean and sober, but he’s still an addict, and his drug of choice is still a near-constant presence in his life. I love, respect and admire the way that Jesse (and Coleman) have dealt with this subject, particularly since Jesse stopped drinking. It’s so much more believable (and healthy) than Jesse’s attempts to manage his drinking before. I liked the approach in Colorblind, and continuing it in The Bitterest Pill made it stronger.

So, we’ve got Jesse battling personal demons (but with a clearer head), adjusting to a new personal reality, and dealing with a potentially crushing crime wave that’s leaving a trail of destruction through the youth of Paradise. Throw in the instability of a new romantic relationship? Jesse’s in a pretty healthy place, but given the pressures (and a couple I didn’t list)—it’s gotta be weighing on him, and Coleman does a pretty good job of balancing the health and precarious nature of Jesse’s state of mind.

As Coleman’s writing, it seemed frequently that he was trying too hard to make this something the level of Colorblind or Debt to Pay, and didn’t quite make it. Maybe because he was trying so hard? The topic he’s dealing with is important, so it’s understandable he’s taking big swings to hit this out of the park. But there are a few sentences that no one but Reed Farrel Coleman could have written. They were gorgeous and practically sang. I don’t want to sound like one of those anti-genre literary snobs, but Coleman comes close to transcending the genre and its easy to see the impact his poetry frequently has on his prose.

At the same time, he’s an effective mystery writer—there are red herrings all over the place for readers to get distracted with. As far as the main conduit for drugs into the school goes, I had a candidate I was sure of and a back-up, and another one, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong and had dismissed the actual perpetrator without much thought at all. While ratcheting up the tension, keeping me locked into the story, he pulls the wool over my eyes and manages a few lines that are practically lyrical. There are few in the genre who can match that.

The ending of this novel came as a little bit of a gut punch. Granted, there was a sense in which the last couple of pages couldn’t have gone any other way—I’ll leave the specifics out of it, but the last few paragraphs were hard to read. But they were so, so good. They might be the most effective few paragraphs in the book. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that just when you think the story’s done, it’s not.

Rumor has it that this is Coleman’s last Jesse Stone book—I hope it’s not true, but it’d make sense as he’s switching publishers. As I said when his first entry in this series came out, his was the best Jesse Stone since Parker’s early days with the series. Yes, he didn’t do things the way Parker would have (especially later), but what he did was honest and genuine to the spirit of the characters and series that Parker left. Stone has a complexity that Spenser lost in the mid-80s, and Coleman recaptured that. The Bitterest Pill might not have been Coleman’s Stone at his best, but I think that’s largely because he was trying too hard to say something about the societal impact of the drugs (whereas in Colorblind it seemed effortless). And, while it wasn’t as good as it wanted to be, it was very, very good, and will go down as one of the higher points of the series.

The Bitterest Pill would be a good place to meet Jesse Stone and the rest of the Paradise Police Department, and it’s a great way for long-time fans/readers to touch base with them. I strongly recommend this.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—I thank both groups for this.

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4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

The Shameless by Ace Atkins: Tibbehah County’s Dark Past, Present and Future Combine for Atkins’ Strongest Novel Yet

The ShamelessThe Shameless

by Ace Atkins
Series: Quinn Colson, #9
Hardcover, 446 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: July 23 – 24, 2019

This just feels like too much of a novel to do an adequate job with. It’s been a week and a half (at the time of writing), and I’m still thinking about this book and everything Atkins did in it. I’m honestly not up to the task of doing it right. But I’ll give it a shot, with the up-front caveat that I’m missing a lot. You just need to read this.

Twenty years ago, when Quinn was in High School, a student a couple of years older than him went missing in the woods while hunting—and everyone came out in droves to look for him. For weeks the town, the media, and the Sheriff’s Department (under Quinn’s uncle) devoted every waking hour to finding him. They eventually found his body near his rifle and ruled it a suicide. But no one was satisfied with that finding. Now, two New York journalists have arrived to re-open the case, look at things from a new perspective, and hopefully come up with enough material (and, better, a satisfying conclusion) for the next season of their podcast about missing people.

Quinn’s new wife, Maggie, had been the boy’s girlfriend and initially helps the podcasters out a lot. The boy’s family isn’t united about this new search for answers, but most people are willing to help (while being suspicious of the two). A lot of old secrets, old prejudices, and unanswered questions and qualms are brought forth from the recesses of the collective memory of the community. A tragedy that had shaken the county decades previously is doing the same thing again.

These two are in town for months, stirring up trouble, stirring up gossip, stirring up emotions (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), and generally being a distraction for Quinn. He’d frankly love to devote energy, time and attention to solving a cold case, but there’s a bigger, more dangerous, and frankly, very contemporary threat—Senator Jimmy Vardaman. Vardaman’s been on the fringes (and frequently closer) to the problems around Tibbehah County for quite some time, but now he’s running in the gubernatorial primary and is doing much better than expected. If he wins this, he’s a shoo-in for the actual election. Tapping into a false sense of nostalgia for the Mississippi that never was, a healthy dose of racism, and empty platitudes—and a healthy dose of Syndicate cash—Vardaman’s doing better than anyone expected.

There are a number of crimes that Quinn strongly believes are tied to Vardaman, but he can’t find enough proof. Every time he comes close, something prevents it from happening—he has a few opportunities here to bring Vardaman down before primary and devotes all his energy toward them. One of the strongest themes running through this novel is the intersection of crime and politics, and how that affects both enterprises. Too often (in fiction and reality), politics boils down to the influence of and lust for money and power—which is pretty much what crime (particularly the more organized forms of it) is. Vardaman’s not the only example this series or this novel has of it, but he’s the current exemplar in Atkins’ world.

Meanwhile, Fannie Hathcock is still running the show when it comes to illicit materials and licit (but not fully-clothed) women in Tibbehah County. Recent events have left things shaky for her, and Vardaman’s ascent (and those he owes favors to) will make things shakier. We don’t see much of what that means in this book, but I think we will soon. I don’t think Fannie is a woman to be taken lightly—the power structures on both sides of the law may be less-than-welcoming to a woman—and I don’t expect her to go quietly (if she goes at all).

My biggest complaint is about Boom Kimbrough. Yes, Quinn’s best friend and staunchest ally (no offense to Maggie or Lillie), is a presence throughout—but is absent from the major story, and his subplot doesn’t get that much space. Boom’s primarily recovering from—to some extent—the events of The Sinners, and that’s about all we see from him. He and Caddy spend a lot of time together, but if he has more than one conversation with Quinn, I’d be surprised. I should’ve taken notes on that front (but who’d have thought I’d have to?). I assume we’ll see more of him in future books—I just don’t want to wait.

Using the podcast—and the stir it creates—to revisit many of the characters’ storylines, see how they got to where they are now (possibly to look at them in a different light)—is a brilliant move and Atkins uses it very effectively. There are moments recalled because of this podcast that I’d forgotten about or hadn’t seen in relation to the greater story arcs. Also, it’s a great way to help the reader see that other parts of the county may not see Quinn’s actions the same way the reader has. By using the podcast, Atkins is able to create drama with this as well as avoiding several dull information dumps.

Something that I don’t particularly enjoy—but respect and appreciate—is the way things ended. I’ve seen several people call it a cliff-hanger of an ending. I don’t really see it that way, but I can see where they’re coming from. Now, I’m not going to get into the details for obvious reasons (for one, I’m not a monster), but I can say that it was a very noir ending. Which fits, this is a dark series—fun, sometimes funny—but a real Southern noir. This is Colson at the noirest, particularly the last chapter. It was a perfect ending to a great book—so don’t take my not particularly enjoying as a complaint. I’d prefer an ending where justice triumphs, evil is vanquished, and Quinn rides off into the sunset. That ain’t the world we live in, that’s not the world of Tibbehah County, and this novel is better at showing us than the others have been (not that things like a tornado wiping out huge parts of the county are exactly rainbows and unicorns, either).

Can this be read as a jumping-on point? I actually think it can—it easily serves as a “Where We Are Now/Where We Have Been” novel. But just know that you’re going to want to go back and read the others to understand everything talked about (much of which is alluded to, rather than explained—the way you’d talk to an old friend about something that happened four years ago). Obviously, the best thing to do is get The Ranger and work your way up to this point, but this would be the best jumping-on point since The Ranger.

The Shameless is the longest novel in the series, easily the most ambitious, and very possibly the best (I can’t think of a better one, but I’d have to re-read them. Which isn’t a bad idea, actually.). It feels like a change in the series—which is hard to describe without spoiling, but if Chapter One was Quinn’s struggles against Stragg, Chapter Two would be everything up to this book until Stragg went to prison, and then Chapter Three is whatever comes after The Shameless. Something tells me this small-town sheriff is missing the days when his biggest problem was Stragg.

I really can’t recommend this enough—Quinn Colson and Ace Atkins are some of the best in the genre today and The Shameless is the best proof of that.

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5 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge