Any novel that opens with crazy jihadists killing jolly old Saint Nick on the first page can't be too bad.
"Soft Target," in bookstores Dec 6th, manages to be more than just not bad; it's a modern Western on amphetamines; it's Tom Clancy if Clancy were a better weaver of the old fashioned good vs. evil yarn; it's... well, it's Stephen Hunter all the way. Semper fi and all that.
Those who are familiar with the author will understand, and those who are not--well, what are you doing reading a book review by me when there is writing out there carved by a master?
"Soft Target" is the new Hunter thriller that takes place in a thriller writer's fantasy land: America, the Mall. Appropriately, it combines the two things America loves the most: shopping and violence. Those two ingredients are enough to carry the novel through a harsh and very quick 254 pages. You will not want to put this one down.
Ray Cruz is Hunter's new John Wayne. He's retired USMC and just wants to leave the Mall of America with his beautiful fiancée, Molly Chan. Only problem is some jihadists have a very different idea and decide to take the mall and the thousands of innocent shoppers hostage on the busiest shopping day of the year: Black Friday.
Cruz, noble and honorable and flawed as he is, decides to take the mall back when there is little action being taken outside by Colonel Douglas Obobo. Hunter sets up the contrast between the two perfectly. Cruz is the conservative man of action, while Obobo is the liberal believer in mankind, the man who believes in words above all else. Other characters flourish as well in the novel, which, despite being short, fleshes out the action from every perspective imaginable. We follow Cruz, we follow the Imam leading the ordeal, we follow Colonel Obobo, newscaster Nikkie Swagger, FBI sniper McElroy, and many others. The novel fleshes out so many characters and tells the story in such a thorough way that Tarantino would be jealous.
As always, Hunter's greatest gift is his style, his prose. He's been called the "populist Faulkner" and for good reason. He's no Vince Flynn and he's no Tom Clancy. His characters inhabit a harsh world that is unforgiving and follows no set code of good wins over evil. His characters inhabit a place called reality where Hunter's simple yet delicate and violent prose comes alive. His heroes are not perfect and his villains are never black and white.
In fact, Hunter is famous for going where no other writer will go. He enters the grey. He tells the densely complicated stories other thriller writers shy away from. He throws his noble yet heroic characters into the world of grey and forces them to deem what is black and white, good and evil, and we sit back and enjoy.
Hunter's novels also appeal because of their visual style, and this one is no different. He manages to keep the pace fast and the narrative swift without sacrificing clarity, because he knows exactly what we want. He feeds us the exact images and verbs our inner beasts need to gobble up in order to be completely consumed by the story. Hunter has perfected the craft of the thriller by keeping his prose simple a la Hemingway and giving us the details other writers shy away from, all while providing these in the context of a visually striking world only a man who reviewed films for decades could give us.
"Soft Target" will pull you in fast and hard and will not let go until the very last utterance has been spoken. Ray Cruz is our new hero, our new John Wayne, and watching him navigate through a world of liberal spinners, evil jihadists, political guinea pigs and bureaucracy at its finest is more than entertaining. It's thrilling, and that's due to the epic prose of Hunter. There's no other thriller writer like him today. Hell, there's no other writer like him today. He passes the Clancys, the Flynns, the Thors like they were all standing still. And considering how far ahead his novels seems to be in all most every capacity, they must be.