Henry “Hank” Brown came to my attention because we both participate in the action-adventure forums over at mackbolan.com. I bought his book simply because he came on the forums, mentioned the novel and asked people to buy it. Marketing at its most basic. When I eventually got around to reading it, I shot him an email half-way through the book and he was kind enough to do a podcast interview with me. Hank is a former soldier who’s put that experience to good use in his stories.
“Hell and Gone” tells the story of Rocco Cavarra and a group of retired special operators assembled by the CIA for a dirty op. Islamic terrorists have possession of an atomic weapon, and it’s up to Rocco’s Retreads to get it back at all costs and without implicating the U.S. Mission creep sets in fairly early, and before they can even fire a shot, these old soldiers are in it up to their necks. As a military thriller catering to the same crowd that reads Tom Clancy and Mack Bolan, “Hell and Gone” delivers hard core action grounded in the kind of realism that comes from experience.
Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass
The biggest threats to the military thriller come from convenient circumstances that work for or against the characters and from characters that are thinly disguised supermen. Brown falls into neither of these traps. Far from being a straightforward slugfest, mission creep lets the tension escalate nearly continuously without devolving into cliché and circumstance. The action comes thick and fast early on and never lets up. This is top notch military storytelling.
Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Writers develop strong connections to their characters, and there is a tendency to turn them into supermen, especially for first-time authors. Brown sidesteps this temptation and delivers a cast of soldiers drawn by portions from men of his acquaintance. The result is a squad of hotheads, goldbrickers, professionals, and roughnecks that you believe could well be operating in the black. These guys go in guns blazing, and not everybody comes out alive.
Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Military thrillers tend to follow a regular formula, and Brown stays true to the course. His pacing switches fluidly from action scene to character development, and never leaves the reader hanging. Brown writes in a natural manner with an easy rhythm. He stutters a little when it comes to ebook formatting and design, but this is a minor misstep that doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the book.
Meaningful Content (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Thrillers of this sort don’t lend themselves to deep discussions on the meaning of life. Brown doesn’t depart from the norm, and the story spends all of its opportunities for deep thought on character development. It’s not a waste; it’s part of what makes the characters so appealing. It also means that reader investment depends on plot and character rather than personal reflection. Readers who otherwise enjoy the novel will find little in the way of coffee-shop talk afterward.
Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Pass
I’m fairly likely to read this book again. I have a feeling the second trip through will go faster than the first read. That’s a good sign, but an even better indication is that I find myself wanting others to read this story as well. This book will make a good gift for any fan of the genre. While it’s unlikely to spawn a cult following devoted to Rocco’s Retreads, it’s a book that rewards sharing.
Hank Brown’s a great guy and a talented writer. His blog pulls no punches when it comes to hard hitting action stories, and he’s made an effort to collect some very good stuff under his Virtual Pulp banner. Since “Hell and Gone”, Hank has done a variety of other fiction, including forays into fantasy, historical fiction, and even a boxing story. He’s submitted material for at least one of the Benefit Books published here, and has since written a sequel to “Hell and Gone” titled “Tier Zero”. His blog can be found at The Two-Fisted Blogger, along with links to his other projects.