Monday, August 19, 2013

What's In The Box?

by Charlie Huston
Reviewed by Kemper
4 out 5 stars.

You gotta love a book in which the weapons used by the bad-ass hero include a pair of socks and a ruler.

Skinner was raised in a closed environment as part of a screwy experiment from his autistic parents, and as an adult he worked for an international security firm called Kestrel where he became legendary for his unique method.  Skinner’s Maxim dictated that if anything happened to anyone under his protection, that he would wreak bloody vengeance on anyone and everyone responsible.  This scorched earth policy worked well for a while, but eventually Skinner outlived his usefulness and had to go underground when Kestrel tried to arrange a permanent retirement for him.

Terrance was Skinner’s boss who was forced out of Kestrel, but they want him back to track down the people responsible for a cyber-attack on the US.  Terrance recruits Jae, an analyst with a talent for building robots and OCD tendencies that allow her to find patterns in the chaos of world events, and he contacts Skinner and talks him into providing protection for her.  Jae had a bad experience with Kestrel previously and doesn’t trust them so she and Skinner have that in common.  The two race around the globe uncovering a vast conspiracy that somehow involves a slum in Mumbai.

Charlie Huston used to crank out hard boiled books featuring criminals and/or vampires and then fill them up with enough attitude, atmosphere and graphic violence to make them highly entertaining reads.  He was good enough that he probably could have had a successful career if he had no bigger ambitions, but Huston has been showing a remarkable capacity for growth over his last several books.   In Skinner, he takes what could just be a good set-up for an action spy thriller and gives it a huge amount of depth by using a couple of complex characters to throw around some very big ideas.

Skinner’s story examines how a bunch of variables like economics, political unrest and climate change have combined into a murky threat cloud that always hangs on the horizon and perpetually seems about to engulf the world.  Huston has nailed that general unease that comes with scrolling through a day’s worth of news stories and realizing that the problems far outnumber the solutions.  The Jae character is particularly good at conveying this since she has a tendency to start following patterns obsessively to conclusions that indicate the world is doomed.  While there’s plenty of action, gee-whiz tech and the usual tropes of covert thrillers like suitcases full of fake passports and money, it’s the bigger picture that makes this feel a lot more important than just a typical spies-on-the-run-against-a-vast-conspiracy story.

My one gripe is that there’s almost too much in the book.  I would have liked to get more with Skinner and Jae because they’re both such intriguing characters, but it kind of feels like we’re racing through their history to keep the core story moving.  It almost seems like this could have been the conclusion of a larger series, but it was nice to get a self-contained story rather than an author just kicking off a new multi-book narrative so I won’t bitch too much about it.

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