The brilliantly sociopathic assassin, Victor, is taken on his most gruesome and grimmest ride in A Time To Die by Tom Wood whose writing is beautifully visceral and gut-wrenching. Though the story is a low-key plot, this book hits big on the emotional side by having an extremely twisted story that focuses on the characters. The action is brutally gory at times, but also emotionally hard-hitting on a higher intensity in scenes where the kills avoid outright violence. Pieces of the anonymous, amoral, logical, and sociopathic protagonist’s past are explored indirectly in this book in ways ignored previously, but he’s still an enigma.
Victor starts the story on a train in Russia, hired for a job by the British SIS(MI6) to eliminate another SIS officer who’s compromised himself by working for the Chinese. This opening sequence is one of the most darkly emotional pieces of writing I’ve come across recently, where the killer has a personal and open conversation with his target and lets his target have the choice in changing his method of execution. Taking Victor’s advice, the espionage officer enjoys his last meal of unhealthily cooked steak and voluntarily chokes to death on it to avoid the disgraceful alternative. This masterfully written sequence sets the tone for the grimdark seriousness of our purely anti-heroic protagonist.
When Victor’s attacked by another assassin on the train after the kill, he realizes there’s more involved and someone he’s worked with has betrayed him. This confrontation between Victor and Krieger, a german assassin almost as professional and coldly logical as Victor, surprisingly ends up with both of them surviving to meet again later in the book. Our assassin makes his way to London, where he’s targeted by another assassin who dies after she seduces him, which is another darkly twisted scene that explores his logically sociopathic mind. A meeting with his contact in the SIS gives him another contract, a crime boss in Serbia known for his genocidal war crimes who’s escaped justice many times. Victor also learns that there’s a bounty on his head, with multiple assassins out to get it, after a mishap with his former broker.
Now, in Serbia, Victor establishes his cover and digs into the underworld trying to locate his target, Milan Rados, who’s one of the most sadistic, egotistic, maniacal, vicious, and smartest opponents he’s been paid to eliminate. Through the events of this twisted story, Victor begins to vaguely appreciate, understand, and even feel emotionally comfortable with his target, building a form of human connection he’s not had with anyone before. But after some heavy plot twists, Victor eliminates the only human who came close to understanding and valuing him, revealing a tiny ray of decency and humanity in our normally unemotional assassin. Victor’s journey to find his target accidentally ends up with him working for Rados who recognizes his potential and values Victor higher than his normal, savage henchmen, recognizing Victor’s intelligence, well-read literacy and education, smart tactical thinking, and his lack of fear. The twisted friendship between Rados and Victor gets darkly intimate on an emotional level as Rados glorifies and almost worships Victor, which angers all his usual henchmen.
At the same time, Victor opens up about his real agenda by trusting a young, abducted and trafficked woman, Ana, at a brothel owned by Rados, hoping to cultivate her as an asset to get to his target by digging at her hatred for the crime boss. During the course of the story, the assassin’s sympathy gets the better of him as he starts to care for his asset, leading to an unfortunate accident when she does the unexpected, consumed by distrust and hate, destroying herself and his plans, in one of most soul-crushing endings of all action thrillers. The story has other sub-plots where Victor helps Rados out with a deal with another crime syndicate which leads to an amazingly chaotic action sequence that benefits Victor in ways different from what he’d planned for. On the other side of the story are a few double crosses and triple crosses at the SIS which leads to Krieger cleaning house by eliminating Victor’s no-so-innocent contact, leading to new complications for his contract. Another SIS officer heads to Belgrade to notify the assassin of their changes which affect his work and to not anger him by compensating him for his time. This leads to Victor requesting resources for a personal operation to rescue his asset from her hellish life, but things go terribly wrong with more unexpected twists.
Victor’s final confrontation with Rados’ right-hand man who has a personal vendetta against him, and then with Krieger are some of the most brutal fights that are visceral both on a physical and psychological level, where Victor’s grim, logical, and brilliantly sociopathic mind shines in the darkest ways. Though Victor was never a Punisher(Frank Castle) type vigilante ‘hero’ in any of the books, he has a tiny ray of vigilantism in this book where he sometimes kills for personal reasons instead of his usual work of profiting from death.
The gun-play, weaponry, techno-detail, operational realism, and the attention to detail is top-notch like the rest of the books in this series, but A Time To Die shines particularly in the emotional and psychological side, filled with darkly twisted moral ambiguity and even a few philosophical moments from the assassin. The villain, Rados, gets closer to Victor more than any other character in the series, but his maniacal and egoistic sadism disgusts Victor at many moments, making our protagonist confused about viewing Rados as a worthy opponent or as a new employer who could change his life. Rados’ perversion of Marcus Aurelius’ texts and his views of the stoic emperor’s values as a form of weakness that ruined Rome is off-putting and sickening, but it’s just one of the many scenes between Victor and Rados that explore their characters in ways unusual in action thrillers.
It’s not a happy tale and definitely not a traditionally heroic action thriller, but it’s one of the most gruesome thrillers that darkly humanizes Victor in emotionally beautiful ways despite being too grimdark. Victor’s the type of anti-hero that makes all the other anti-heroes in all forms of fiction seem outright heroic, and yet he’s not a villain. Almost every part of the book is filled with unfortunate accidents and unlucky situations for the characters, and many of whom never get happy endings, but Tom Wood’s narrative brilliance shows itself many times in this unforgettable thriller.