Flying Body Press, 2016, 295 pages
Here are the rules.
Method: you can't use a gun. You can't use explosives. You can't use poison. It has to be up close and personal. You don't have to worry about leaving evidence; that will be taken care of.
Victim: no one suicidal. No one over the age of 65. No one with a terminal illness.
Choose your method. Choose your victim.
Chris Summer was a 21-year-old call centre worker. A dropout. A nobody, still living at home with his parents. Then one day the Man in White came to his family's house, offering a seemingly impossible choice: kill a random stranger - one of Chris' choosing - within 12 days in order to save the lives of five kidnapped siblings. Refuse, and they die slowly and painfully.
The clock is ticking, the Man in White is watching and Chris has some very important choices to make. This is a tale of fear, indecision, confused masculinity and brutal violence - a story of a coddled young man thrust into a world of sharp metal and bone. Ask yourself if you could do it. Then ask yourself who you would choose.
There's a particular type of British protagonist — I see him sometimes in American fiction, but he's particularly popular in British books and TV shows, for some reason.
He's a mewling, spineless, indecisive, stammering, hapless, feckless, unfuckable loser whom we're nonetheless supposed to identify with because he's an Ordinary Joe. An Everyman whom I guess the reader is supposed to find non-threatening or, gods forbid, able to "identify" with.
I don't, and I fucking hate this guy. I hate him even when Neil Gaiman writes him, and I like Neil Gaiman. I hate him when he shows up on British TV, from Dr. Who to Monty Python. I hate him in Terry Gilliam movies and I even hated him in Harry Potter (Harry wasn't a complete tosser, but his essential lack of anything identifiable as masculinity is one of the reasons why, as much as I loved the series, I questioned J.K. Rowling's ability to write believable boys, until she started writing adult novels.)
So, I really hated the main character in this book. Chris works in a call center, he lives with his parents, he has no girlfriend or social life, and no real future. Then a couple of mysterious strangers come to his house and talk their way inside (because being this particular species of British invertebrate, of course he lets them in and present their spiel).
Basically, it's a horrific, highly contrived scenario that seems heavily derived from the Saw movies (from what little I know of them, having never actually seen them). The villain has, for his own inexplicable reasons, kidnapped five celebrity sisters who seem to be Kardashian knockoffs. Chris has to kill someone, or the villains are going to start on one girl and every nine hours cut off a limb, until they get to her head, and then start on the next one.
They set up all kinds of conditions like "no terminal cancer patients, no one suicidal," etc. — in other words, it has to be a genuine victim who doesn't want to die.
Chris dicks around trying to decide who he can kill — his asshole boss, some skinheads at the local white supremacist bar, a drug dealer — but being spineless and incapable of actually making hard decisions, just agonizing about them, pissing his pants, and throwing up for interminable, belabored periods of time, one girl ends up with no arms before he finally arrives at a solution.
I was slightly surprised when the book didn't end there. Instead, Chris moves on from this horrific event, gets married, and then the villains come back. You're expecting something really bad to happen again, and that's when the author springs the twist, the villain explains his evil plan, and...
Okay. The plot was interesting. The motivations of all the characters were, if not exactly believable, consistent. This sort of story might have worked in the hands of Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman. Luke Smitherd isn't either of those guys. His writing was interesting enough to keep me hooked on the plot, but I was grinding my teeth the entire time just wanting Chris to go jump off a bridge. Despite the horrific no-win situation he'd been put in, I could not feel sorry for him because he didn't have an ounce of fight in him, just whining and sniveling and bitching.
It's a 3-star story with 2.5 star writing and a 1-star characterization. Which is perhaps a little unfair, because I realize it's my deep, personal dislike for this type of character that made me dislike this book so much when I otherwise probably would have found it much more interesting. I may even try another book by Luke Smitherd because he does come up with interesting plots. But no more of these quivering little wimp protagonists, please.
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