Just over a year ago now, Simon and Schuster very graciously provided me some review copies of their then-new book, Dead Zero, written by Stephen Hunter, and I was able to put them to good use raising over $230 for Ramon Castillo’s recovery fund.
A few months back, the same publishing house sent me a few review copies of the sequel to that book, Soft Target, which I then put to good use raising over $2300 for Soldiers’ Angels.
What I have not done, however, is review those books that they gave me to… well… review.
So here is me, doing what I should have done a year ago (at least) and reviewing both books… simultaneously. Why? Well, I have never read any of the lengthy series that precedes these two books, but, taken together, they resemble nothing more than an honest-to-God complete reboot of that very series, complete with the effective retirement of the old main character and the rise of a new one.
To begin with, let me say this – Stephen Hunter knows his material. He only spent two years in the United States Army (attached to the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) in Washington D.C.), but he obviously supplemented the limited training he would have received there in the time since. His descriptions and depictions of firearms, ballistics, tactics, and so forth are so detailed they verge on “obsessive”, and while I cannot, personally, attest to the accuracy or veracity of most of it, I can say that most of his material regarding specific firearms matches up against what I know and could look up* – unfortunately, some of it was straight up Hollywoodism. When it comes to Marine RECON elements and their particular tactics, or how to do off-hand shooting crazy-accurate, though, I am just going to have to smile and nod, but at least the “suspension of disbelief” was not difficult.
Speaking of Marines and their general bad-ass-itude, though, brings me to one of my primary, if not the primary complaint against Mr. Hunter’s writing – he did far too much “telling” in my opinion. I am not an author (much to everyone’s relief, let me tell you), but it is my understanding that one of the more difficult balancing acts a fiction author must maintain when writing is that between “showing” and “telling” – sure, both can get the point across to the readers, but the former tends to have a significantly more lasting effect upon the audience. In my hardly humble opinion, Mr. Hunter spent far too much time on telling us just how monstrously hardcore his characters were, and too little time allowing the characters to demonstrate that for themselves. This may be an artifact of the former book being at the tail end of a series, and thus Mr. Hunter feeling he needed to get everyone caught back up again, and the latter book ostensibly marking the full start of a new one, or it could be something else entirely, but, personally, I got a little tired of it by the end of the second book. Your mileage, of course, will vary.
That said, there are more than ample opportunities for you to learn, first hand, just how badass Bob Lee Swagger and Ray Cruz, the respective main characters of the books, can be when properly motivated. Such demonstrations ranged from Cruz making prone shots against terrorists 100-200 yards away with nothing more than an iron-sighted AK-74 and a potato silencer**, to his making fairly short, but nowhere near easy, work of another Somali terrorist with a little help from a rather unstereotypical female local. Unfortunately for the storyline, Bob Lee has unsurprisingly aged over the course of his series, so his particular talents reside less in the “beat the crap out of people” department and more in the “think and act like a sniper” kind of way. The specific actions and decisions in his combat scenes can occasionally be a little difficult to follow, but Mr. Hunter keeps the audience, or at least me, interested in how they will turn out.
Speaking of, the stories did tend to keep me turning pages. They were rather quick reads, for whatever that is worth, but once I started I did not want to put them down until I figured out where all the pieces went and where it all ended up. Mr. Hunter did not seem to have too much of a problem killing of supporting or faceless characters, so there was always the overriding possibility that one of the main characters might make it under the chopping block, and, in fact… well, you will have to read for yourself.
Before you dive into Soft Target, however, you should probably be forewarned: to call it “a thinly veiled, intentionally insulting allegory on the current Presidential administration and the sociopolitical forces that would allow such a thing to come into existence and then stay in existence” would be putting it very, very mildly. In fact, I would even go so far as to say the story suffers in light of Mr. Hunter’s desire to let you know just how very much he dislikes the current situation. That story is eminently believable, given how many malls in America insist on declaring themselves to be “victim disarmament zones” and the prevalence of similar tactics in other countries (Mumbai, anyone?), but I get the feeling the book would have been significantly shorter, or significantly better, if the author had not used it as a avenue for his venting against the current state of politics. That is, of course, the author’s choice, though.
All in all, I would consider both Dead Zero and Soft Target to be a good, distracting read. They are not exactly earth-shattering in… well… anything, honestly, and I am not likely to pick them up again for a while, but they passed the time, and I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy some of the fight scenes. If you are as hardcore a Stephen Hunter fan as his characters are Marines, go ahead and snag a copy, but, otherwise, I would recommend at least waiting for paperbacks.
(* – I do, however, have to question the… artistic… depiction of a .50BMG round impacting a metal desk in Dead Zero. I have fired a Barrett Model 82A1 and watched through the scope as the round impacted a 55 gallon drum just shy of a thousand yards away (thanks to previous shooters perfectly zeroing the optic). The phrase “hot knife through butter” does not even begin to adequately describe the experience, so I really have to wonder if such a round impacting a similar object at an even closer range would behave anywhere near how he wrote it.
** – Which, thankfully, does not actually work, otherwise we would have the BATFE laser-engraving every spud to come out of the ground)
(Obligatory Middle Finger to the FTC: As clearly indicated in this post, and the previous posts about these books, they were provided to me by Simon & Schuster on the premise I would eventually review them. This is the review. Get over it and get a real job instead of harassing webloggers.)