Full disclosure at the outset: I accepted the author’s offer of a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. Author Lloyd dedicates this debut novel, appropriately, “to all the invisible heroes in the world who risk their own lives to save others.”
It’s the opener for a projected series, the Vormund/Ames Files, dealing with a secretive consulting firm that caters to governments and businesses with needs in the security and counter-terrorism area. What they provide is usually advice and analysis –but there are times when they go beyond that. While they’re not amoral mercenaries simply out for a buck –they choose to be on the side of good, not evil– they may operate on the edge of the law, and in operations where their employers sometimes might want some “plausible deniability.” The author’s own comment (in a personal message to this reviewer) sums her work up best: “There are serious themes, but framed in terms of good, evil, and hope. I consider my characters to be imperfect people trying their best in an imperfect world.”
Though published this year, the book is set in 2008. A few months before it opens, a small party of innocent and idealistic American botanists ventured into the jungles of Honduras, researching medicinal plants. Unfortunately, they blundered into the territory used by drug lord Hector Vega, and while trying to flee from a fire fight between his minions and a rival gang, they were all brutally gunned down. Both the U.S. and Honduran governments know, from eyewitness testimony, that Vega was responsible; but his political connections and back-scratching arrangements give him blank-check immunity. He’s not as home free as he imagines, however, because the grief-stricken fiancee of one of the murdered men is a soft-spoken young woman from Georgia named Elizabeth Ashton. Liz is a decent, ethically-oriented person who cares about others and about doing the right thing. She’s also a professional sniper for the FBI, with the rank of Special Agent, and probably as deadly a markswoman with a rifle as it’s humanly possible to be.
The plot here has two focal points of action (and this doesn’t disclose anything that’s not already outlined in the cover copy): the Vega problem in the early chapters, and the main plot strand, code-named “Operation Angelica.” Law enforcement runs in Liz’s family (her father is a county sheriff, and her brother a state trooper); respect for legal due process and commitment to basic justice are both important principles for her. When they’re in irreconcilable conflict, and she has to decide which one trumps the other, she doesn’t take it lightly. Personally, I don’t have any problem with her decision (I’m much less hard on her on that score than she is on herself!). But it’s one that, eventually, brings her to the notice of the Vormund/Ames management –who are impressed rather than scandalized. That leads to a job offer (and given the series title, it’s no surprise that she accepts!).
The company’s current big project in hand is a rescue mission for a group of hostages –especially a critically ill journalist with both Columbian and French citizenship– held by a drug-trafficking Marxist guerrilla rebel group in the South American jungle. We also have a sub-plot involving a high-ranking CIA official with a gambling-debts problem and a lot fewer ethical scruples than he needs to have.
Lloyd’s prose style is accomplished and assured, which is to say that she handles diction, syntax, and vocabulary very well (a refreshing experience nowadays!). In 253 pages, I only found four typos, which indicates pretty good proofreading. She also appears to have genuine technical knowledge of firearms (although modern pistols don’t have to be “cocked,” as one is here; but many writers make that minor mistake) and of the training, procedures and equipment involved in SWAT-style ops; I don’t have personal experience in that area, but the writing has a solidly realistic feel to me. Not only Liz, but all of the major characters here are clearly delineated and lifelike.
Character and relationship development occupies more of the book than action, as does planning, intelligence gathering and set-up –that’s also realistic for this type of thing, where the time involved in actual gun-blazing action, if you’ve planned well, is actually relatively brief. That said, there’s a good deal of taut tension that mounts steadily before the shooting starts, and there’s a high body count when it’s finished. (Also, GWG fans will appreciate the fact that this novel gives us at least two major female characters who can handle a gun capably, not just one; CIA agent Katherine Williams is certainly one formidable lady!)
For the most part, the plotting here is linear and straightforward, without a lot of convolution, and this is a quick read. I withheld the fifth star in my rating because of several logical missteps in the CIA-official subplot; but that didn’t stop me from really liking the book, and I definitely intend to follow the series!
Note: Liz and other characters use a certain amount of bad language, of the d/h/s/a-word sort, at times, but no obscenity or religious profanity. Their speaking style is well within the bounds of realism for these types of characters and situations. One of the flashbacks has Liz recalling a conversation she and her fiance had when they were lying together in bed, and it’s clear that another couple make love at one point; but there’s no explicit sex, and Lloyd doesn’t portray any of these four people as promiscuous types.
Author: Juliene Lloyd
Publisher: Dark Sword Press. Available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.
[A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads]