|<—Original cover on the left.
New cover on the right. —>
Just looking at the covers,
which book would you rather buy?
Presented as a lesson to indie authors on the importance of investing in one's book covers.
The plot is pretty straightforward: Muslim terrorists have a nuclear bomb. The CIA recruits a dirty baker's dozen of veterans and mercenaries to neutralize the threat. There are only a few questions: "Will they succeed?", "How high will the body count be?" and "Who's going home in a body bag?" Instead, Brown focuses his creative energy on the characters and the action scenes.
In an action thriller it would be very easy for the characters to resemble cardboard props waiting their turn to become cannon fodder, but Brown doesn't go that route. Each of his characters has a story and Brown gives each one the time to tell it, although with the sheer number present some get more time than others. And they're a diverse, fractious lot. Yes, they're all dark-skinned (Caucasians would be a dead giveaway in the Sudan, where the action takes place) ex-military or mercenaries loaded up with testosterone, but the similarities end there. They're distinct individuals with their own sets of skills and shortcomings. They're men, not superheroes. You'll hate Mai for his arrogance and bigotry, but you'll admire Scarred Wolf's ability to execute his bloody job with honor and integrity.
The villains in Hell and Gone are truly evil. I don't say that lightly. The manipulation that the Jihadist leader, Ali, and his Chinese consultant, Chin, put fifteen-year old Bassam through is nothing short of diabolical. The scary part is, none of it comes across as far-fetched.
Brown, a veteran himself, uses his characters to address a range of issues. He explores veteran alienation through several men. We get to see how each dealt with feeling disconnected from friends, family and country once they were “back in the World.” There's also the matter of American foreign policy. At his weakest point, Brown's characters sound like they're reading neocon talking points from the back of a cereal box. But at his best, he presents an intelligent examination of our relationship to Israel and the Middle East. You'll wish our leaders would have such a frank discussion with all the facts, rather than dishing out the rhetoric.
The battle scenes are meticulously detailed. It wouldn't surprise me if Brown built scale models of the locales in his basement so that he could properly choreograph each step and shot. He'll have vets and military aficionados nodding their heads as he relates the pros and cons of various weapons down to their milspecs. Meanwhile, civvies will run to Wikipedia to look up the old planes that have been out-of-service in the Western World for decades. But he doesn't do it to impress anyone, he does it to stay true to his characters and himself.
While the dialogue is great, I do have gripes. For a bunch of leathernecks, they never curse! "Shit" doesn't appear until three quarters of the way through the book. "Damned" has been replaced by "doomed." Every variation of profanity involving "dick" has been replaced by "Richard." For example, "limp Richard" and "Richard head." And there isn't a single F-bomb. This behavior is never explained and strikes me as disingenuous.
As for the technicals, a few homophones slipped through the cracks. There are a few point-of-view shifts that might violate some rule somewhere, but honestly they don't disorient the reader at all. Towards the end of the final battle, the writing breaks down into short, choppy sentences, which impart the feel of a grocery list of action rather than a flowing narrative.
Overall, Hell and Gone is a military thriller that delivers the goods on the action, has vivid, realistic characters who interact with great dialogue, and presents some food for thought. If enough people chew on it, maybe the all too plausible scenario presented here will remain fiction, assuming it hasn't happened already.
Hell and Gone is available in print from Amazon and in several eBook formats from Smashwords. Free samples are available through the author's website and at Smashwords.