Friday, February 11, 2011

Hell and Gone Made Me Cry Tears of Sweet Violent Joy

First, I'm going to say something kinda mean. Then, I'm going to say a lot of good things.

Let's begin.

I have always been extremely leery of war fiction written by veterans. Not necessarily combat veterans, but just veterans in general. I don't know if it's because I see the whole "Written by a guy who's been there, so you know the realism will Jump Off The Page!" as something of a marketing gimmick, or if it's because all too often I find that the use of over-authenticated terminology and other military trappings actually annoys me to some degree.

In movies and television, I feel that level of verisimilitude adds a lot because while at the time you may see something odd and say to yourself "Hey, why are those Delta Force guys wearing hockey helmets?", you can then look it up and say "Ohhh, hey, that's cool that they did it like that in the movie!". It can be taken in at a glance and appreciated almost as an afterthought while everything else is going on. Too often in the novels, the author feels the need to pointedly explain - almost directly to the reader - the "real-world" tactics the characters are using, or military terms, or whatever.

And, God help any author who uses the phrase "Unlike what you see in the movies..." or "This is real life, not some action movie...", or some variation on that theme, either as character dialogue or in a descriptive exposition. It's actually more annoying in movies (since you ARE in an action movie, jerkwad...), but it's just as annoying in books; that's an automatic one-star penalty to any rating I'd give.

So, when I set out to read Henry Brown's novel Hell and Gone, I approached it sorta like going on a blind date. I know Henry's a veteran, but I also know he was shooting very much for a "pulpy action novel" vibe when he wrote the book, so I wasn't sure how those two competing influences were going to blend, and what they would produce.

Well, what they produced was an action novel that hits you like a brick through a plate glass window. Hell and Gone is, in every positive way possible, a literary cousin to Stallone's action opus The Expendables. A cadre of crusty "has-been" mercs sent on a supposed suicide mission, taking on an overwhelming number of bad guys and repeatedly kicking them square in the wedding tackle. There's a lot of conflict, both internal and external, and some of the guys you love to hate, and others you hate to love, but they're all interesting and fun to read.

At 82K words, Hell and Gone isn't a particularly long novel, nor should it be particularly long; it's an action movie in written form, and thus there's no reason for it to look like every other Tom Clancy techno-thriller doorstop novel. I read the book over the course of three evenings on my iPad via the Kindle app, and it read very quick and clean; this was my first purchased eBook read entirely on an electronic device, and I was surprised at how easy it was to read the book. I also have an iPod touch, and using the Whispersync, as long as both devices had a wifi connection I could move from reading on one while at home to reading on the other while waiting for a meeting or getting coffee. It was very handy, and has encouraged me to look to buying more eBooks.

This isn't to say, of course, that I wouldn't have bought the book in paper form; I wanted to try buying an eBook for the first time, and Hell and Gone was my trial run. Having read it, I might just have to buy a hard copy to have on hand. The action is snappy and well-orchestrated, the dialogue is smooth and feels natural, the plot is tightly constructed; simple, but with a few good twists to keep it from being boring. I hope I don't ruin things by saying that not everyone makes it back home alive (and in this regard, I actually think this story trumps The Expendables), and thankfully the deaths were handled very well, with sufficient gravitas but lacking the typical groan-worthy war movie melodrama.

And lastly, while I think you can tell that the book was written by a former serviceman, it mostly comes out in the interactions between the characters and a lot of their viewpoints on life, war, and camaraderie, and in a way that doesn't feel awkward and forced. There's never that "This isn't an action movie, bucko!" moment even though, especially regarding one particular character, that could have easily happened.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Hell and Gone, either the print or the eBook version. If you're a fan of the military / para-military / action genre, you are going to enjoy this book.


Hank Brown said...

I love the smell of reviews like this in the morning. Smells like...victory!

Hey, Jack, that's a terrific review. Really made my day!


Oh yeah, that's short for Henry, not Harry. ;-)

Robo said...

I am the exact opposite when it comes to vet status. I quit reading Mel Odom's "Apocalypse Dawn" when the protagonist, a contemporary. NCO, drank out of a METAL canteen. And Odom is a darn good writer. I can willingly suspend disbelief to buy Elric of Melnibone's soul-sucking sword or vampires living in a small New England town called Salem's Lot, but a post-Vietnam troop with anything but a plastic canteen? Nope.

Jack Badelaire said...

See, that's what happens when you write a review at the end of the day on Friday! Sorry Henry - I edited your name so it's correct now.

Robo, I hear where you're coming from, and I can understand completely. When someone blows something, even something minor, that falls within our body of knowledge, it's a real kick in the junk. And even I know to keep a contemporary US Army issue canteen plastic!

Anonymous said...

Great breakdown of both the book and the sub-genre. Knowing when, where, and how to include realism in the context of a novel is definitely something to struggle with. How much is to much? When does it get to the point that you are beating the reader over the head with it and boring him in the process? "Hell and Gone" was a pretty seamless blend in my opinion. It might even be the new standard for a PMP.

Jack Badelaire said...

Just noting that I put a slightly edited version of this review up on Amazon's page for H&G.