Man, it’s been a while. I blame the National Guard and deer season.
I’ve also been involved with an in-depth writing project, which has taken away my daily time to write for this blog.
I’m back with an author review on Stephen England. I could do a review of one of his many books, but I always prefer to get a large scope of an author’s work.On the surface, Stephen England’s “Shadow Warrior” series might seem cliché. Cool-guy spec-ops warrior, foreign lands, tales of vengeance, struggles with grey-area morality, the whole nine yards. Sounds like another Tom Clancy novel, right?
So why read yet another spy/assassin thriller series written by a civilian?
Stephen England’s writing is anything but cliché. He has compelling characters, excellent action sequences, well-researched ideas, and vivid emotions. Anyone who has read reviews written by me knows that my all-time favorite trait of an author is unpredictability, and England has this in boatloads, but more on that later.
England is a self-published author, a trait which amazes me to no end. Though he has written numerous short stories, as well as a novel about a medieval Gallic warrior, he is perhaps best known for his “Shadow Warrior” series of books.
While I loved the longer experiences of the novels, his shorter novellas were extremely fun to read. They must have been a blast to write, as each novella is an injection of pure action when compared to the complicated plot lines of the novels.
All of the stories center around a team of post-9/11CIA special operators. While my knowledge of the spy and assassin world is slightly smaller Angela Merkel’s concept of foreign policy,
each story reads like a well-researched novel. In all honesty, when I found out that a civilian had written these books, I was expecting to read quite a few “Hurt Locker” scenes involving terrible small-unit tactics, or cringe-worthy weapon-handling.
Stephen England obviously knows more than your typical American about the Middle Eastern world and the various terror organizations therein. He includes more than a few phrases of Arabic, and numerous quotes from the Quran and Islamic philosopher…type…dudes. I don’t know what they’re called, but I’m sure England does.
The series, generally centered on one CIA special operations team, focuses more specifically on the team leader named Harry Nichols. Yeah, you read that right. The hero of a spy thriller is named “Harry.” This is no end of awesome to me. I’m tired of reading about heroes named “Dirk,” or “Steele,” or “Blaise.” What kind of spy has a name that shows he was bred to be an action star?
Nobody, that’s who. Harry is a real name, but that’s the only common thing about him.
The character of Harry Nichols is honestly the reason I bought all of Stephen England’s novels and read them all more or less in two weeks. I say “more or less” because the last one took me a few months. Sorry Stephen. Harry Nichols is a technically and tactically proficient special operations team leader, an experienced operative, and a Christian.
I have read many novelists’ attempts at creating a Christian warrior character, and they generally are all the same; Big strong dude who will quote Ecclesiastes in the middle of a firefight, and never struggles with anything. Ever. His name is usually ”John”, and he runs a Bible study attended by his entire team/squad/squadron. The author typically attempts to throw in sermon illustrations as his character loads up for a mission, or something weird like that.
Stephen England, on the other hand, writes his character as a believable man who has been able to answer his own questions regarding his faith and his actions in war. His protagonist is neither a two-dimensional killer nor a raging televangelist. His faith is a backdrop that is seldom mentioned, but nevertheless manages to be a concrete foundation for his skill in arms. I enjoyed cheering for a character who shares my beliefs, but the less religious reader can be assured that none of it comes across as a proselytizing Bible-thumping narrative.
Harry Nichols is a complicated man, though he does not start out that way. In the first few books, he is a simple machine, a wedge created by our nation to get rid of bad guys. This is not to say that his thought process is simple. He is quite intelligent, and is able to weave together small unit tactics with the bigger picture of international politics. He doesn’t question the mission, he simply accomplishes it in spite of overwhelming odds.
After the events in the first novel, Pandora’s Grave, a few wrenches start to rattle around in Harry’s mind, and the reader begins to see him take missions into his own hands regardless of the guidance of his superiors. It is written in a much more believable manner than the stereotypical “renegade badass” type so overplayed by Hollywood, and the reader will be fascinated by the types of decisions he has to make on a page-by-page basis.
Nichols is far from the only in-depth character in the series. Nichols’ fellow teammates each have their own personalities and struggles. One is a not-so-recovering alcoholic and womanizer, another has to deal with his Arabic lineage as he operates (and kills) in multiple Arabic countries. The Director of the Clandestine Service, a man named Kranemeyer, is a singularly fascinating man as a former Delta Force operator and an amputee. Various congressmen come into play, my favorite being Senator Coftey, a former Special Forces soldier duking it out in Capitol Hill. England even includes a very interesting version of the President of the United States. Female operatives take center stage quite often with compelling results. Even small characters and individual terrorists have their own unique personalities.
England seems to take a page from the George R.R. Martin playbook, wherein he creates villains so human as to create a level of empathy from the reader. The “bad guys” are not black-and-white characters, created only to give the reader someone to hate. They are actual human beings, who have their own backgrounds and reasons for their actions.
Like I said, compelling characters.
Action and Unpredictability
As far as predictability goes, I will say that I saw the plot twist of novel number 1, Pandora’s Grave, from the beginning. Take that for what it’s worth, because you may or may not have the same prediction. Despite this, the cool characters, interesting story line, and excellent action sequences kept me reading.
Pandora’s Grave begins thousands of years in the past, with the climax of a deadly plague. England then fast-forwards to the present day, and the Iranian plot to utilize this new-found disease for its own nefarious purposes. The reader is introduced to Harry Nichols and his team of bad mambajambas, who run through a global chase to end the terrorist plot. The shooting scenes and action through the streets of the cities of Israel are simply excellent, and the reader gets a vivid picture of the exhaustion endured by the main characters.
Nothing surprised me more than the final action scenes of the second novel, Day of Reckoning. This is a classic case of bait and switch. England leads you on with a great story involving the protection of the daughter of the Director of the CIA. Harry ends up doing…Harry stuff…and the fit hits the shan. The true threat which emerges is something altogether different, and much worse than a simple PSD mission gone wrong. Without giving anything away, the entire book climaxes in a few scenes in Las Vegas, which are terrifying in their plausibility. As I read the book, I realized that those scenes could very easily take place, and that realization made my ticker thump quite a bit faster. Just when I thought everyone was safe, Stephen England pulled the rug out from under my feet and hit me with a sucker punch that literally made me curse out loud. Get that, reader? I cursed out loud because of a fictional story that I read.
England’s latest novel, Embrace the Fire, picks up where the previous novel left off. The smoke still seems to be rising as Harry Nichols undertakes his newest mission in England. Hunting for the terrorist responsible for the latest attacks, Harry begins his slide into the dreaded moral gray area, causing him to question his own actions and motives. He has been “released” from the CIA, and now he is hunted by, well, pretty much everybody. In this third novel, the “bad guys” aren’t as easy to spot, and they were never very visible in the first place. The plot isn’t just a gunning down of kefiyah-wearing suicide bomber Muslim extremists, and the mission is further complicated when a more subtle enemy takes the stage in the form of right-wing nationalists. Combine this with the fact that Harry is hunted by the CIA and MI-5, and you have a recipe for a much more serious version of a Benny Hill chase scene. And no, there is no “Yakkety Sax” music, much to my chagrin.
This third novel, while lacking the sheer body count of the second, concludes in a finale that is nevertheless startling. The final target of the terrorists is finally revealed, and the motives for the attack are as dastardly as they are believable. Once again, the reader is left with a plot that could actually happen, if it isn’t happening already in one way or another. It’s a classic use of an insurgency, which creates the maximum amount of havoc with a miniscule amount of personnel and resources.
As I read Embrace the Fire, I also kept tabs on Stephen England’s facebook posts. It was interesting to read England’s depiction of a terrorist attack on a night club in the novel, and then see it play out in the news. England has made more than one comment that his book was designed to be a novel rather than a prophecy, but as 2016 continues to kick America in the nuts, I’ll be reviewing his material for a few survival tips.
The tactics of the terrorists, as well as the strategy of the nationalists in their desire for a race war, are all played out in current events, making the book that much more plausible. I am convinced that any reader today would easily be able to draw similarities between the plot and current events.
Pace and Style
England’s books don’t have what I would call “down time.” They’re very fast-paced, and switch from one interesting scene to another. It’s like season six of “Game of Thrones,” particularly in his last book.
His style is not overly dramatic (in my opinion). Emotional quandaries and hand-wringing are kept to a minimum. The exception is his treatment of Harry Nichols, who is often forced to deal with a hailstorm of curveballs on every page. As he is often left high and dry, Nichols often finds himself in “WTF” moments where he has to choose between the easy road, or the moral high ground.
Seriously, I hate emotional narratives. More than once I have begun a series about a cool assassin or spec-ops kind of dude, only to put it down in disgust. I just can’t follow emotional roller coaster monologues said by supposed stone-cold killers, which is probably why I hate the “Hunger Games” series.
England’s writing is significantly better, and the experience through which he leads the reader is both fun and nail-biting.
In short, if you’re looking for a book series with excellent action, Game of Thrones-esque politics, fascinating characters, and the plot twists of a Tolkein novel, go check out Stephen England’s “Shadow Warrior” series.