Thursday, March 30, 2023

True Believer: review

[WARNING: spoilers that will probably apply to Season 2 of "The Terminal List."]

Jack Carr's second novel in the James Reece series is True Believer. I assume this novel will form the basis for the plot of Season 2 of the Amazon series. I admit I'm curious as to whether the Amazon series will keep "The Terminal List" as its title or modify the title to something like "The Terminal List: True Believer."

You may recall that, in The Terminal List, James Reece and his SEAL team were the unwitting guinea pigs in a corporate-run, government-sanctioned drug trial that gave Reece and his team brain tumors. The SEALs were sent on a mission in Afghanistan (Syria in the Amazon-series version) designed by malicious parties to be an ambush that should have killed the entire team to cover up the botched drug. But Lieutenant Commander Reece and his buddy Boozer survived, with Boozer seemingly committing suicide upon his return to the States. Reece's wife and daughter were murdered around the same time, apparently by gangsters, and all of this suspicious activity sent Reece on a path of revenge going from the lowest wet-work lowlifes to the highest echelons of the US government. With the US government on his tail, Reece called in some favors and ended up at sea. The tumor in his head turned out to be a slow grower and easily removable—something Reece never found out because the cell phone with the doctor's voice message was being held by the federal government.

True Believer picks up with Reece at sea. The story involves several seemingly unrelated plot strands that all begin converging about halfway through the novel. As Reece is battling both his splitting headaches and the elements, things are happening all around the world. A Russian puppet master currently living in Switzerland wants Mother Russia to return to her glory days, which means killing the current moderate president of Russia. A rogue, sociopathic US ex-agent is manipulating Middle Eastern elements who believe they're still legitimately following US orders. An American CIA staffer who feels underutilized and disrespected is recruited by the Switzerland-based puppet master to coordinate operations. This staffer orchestrates a mass shooting in the heart of London that kills hundreds and almost kills the Prince of Wales. Reece, eventually ditching his boat, finally makes it all the way to Mozambique, where he finds work with the uncle of one of his SEAL buddies, protecting the local wildlife from poachers as he continues to deal with the grief of losing his family. Reece's SEAL background makes him a natural leader in this new environment, and he devises ways to reduce the poaching, much of which comes from Chinese demand for esoteric animal parts. It's Reece's proficiency at this task that catches the US intelligence community's attention (thanks to Chinese outcry as the supply of animal parts dries up), and another old SEAL friend flies all the way to Mozambique to offer Reece a deal: help Uncle Sam find the Russian puppet master (who is also connected to various Middle Eastern operations), and all will be forgiven. The people Reece killed on his "terminal list" all turned out to be extremely corrupt individuals, a fact brought to light by reporter Katie Buranek, making Reece a hero—and therefore untouchable—in the eyes of many Americans.

The novel starts off molasses-slow, and it takes almost half the story for things to speed up, but once they do, the story's pace is relentless and gripping. While part of me wishes the first part of the plot had moved a bit faster, the middle and end of the story were quite satisfying, and the reason for the slow plot at the beginning became evident as all the pieces fell into place. True Believer contains a lot of material on Russia and Ukraine that feels relevant to the point of prescience. Also of note is that Reece does eventually hear the voice message about his brain tumor, but by the end of the story, he still hasn't received any medical treatment, leaving it an open question as to whether he has some sort of death wish motivated by a desire to be with his wife and daughter again. Carr adopts a fairly no-nonsense tone most of the time; it's obvious he takes certain martial and patriotic notions extremely seriously, and his writing is meant to honor those who risk their lives defending the country, even when those defenders aren't acknowledged or appreciated. By the end of the story, most of the loose ends have been taken care of except for two (a sniper and one truly squirrely bastard), and those will, I assume, be dealt with in subsequent novels. We get the impression that enough time has passed for Reece to start possibly having romantic thoughts about Katie Buranek, but the novel ends with only tentative hints in that direction.

In all, I found True Believer to be a worthy successor to The Terminal List. Not quite as action-packed, perhaps, but by the end, the narrative choices all made sense, and most of the bad guys have gotten what was coming to them (one torture scene involving piano wire around the genitals was memorable). In his introduction to both novels, Carr describes The Terminal List as a story of revenge, while True Believer is a story of redemption—the re-humanizing of James Reece as he copes with grief and moves forward into the future. I've already bought Savage Son, the next book in the series, so we'll see where James Reece goes from here. Jack Carr remains a good and compelling writer.

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