Tom Wood spins a wickedly twisted and brilliantly fun tale in Better Off Dead, with his anonymous, amoral, and sociopathic protagonist – Victor the assassin, which left me breathless and desperately addicted to his work. Mr. Wood’s intricate skill of handling a perfect anti-hero whose many humane flaws and strengths bring together a protagonist who’s not exactly a role model but a character who gets the respect, awe, and amazement from the readers of gritty, grim, and seriously smart action thrillers.
The real story in this book starts with Victor being jobless, without getting any assassination contracts from his brokers in a long time, and bored enough to face a meeting with his old Russian employer who’d betrayed him previously in the first book. Normally Victor would have avoided such interactions and be on guard, but an opportunity to kill a treacherous former associate was too enticing to pass up. Disappointed at the Bratva leader(and middle-man for the Russian intelligence) for not putting up any competent traps for him, Victor disables the Russian’s brute goons in fun scenes and finds out his former broker needs help. Though Victor is disinterested in the mob boss’s dwindling organization being targeted by powerful forces, he agrees to help find and protect his adult daughter only because the Russian’s dead wife had been nice to the assassin many years ago.
Most of the story then shifts to London where Victor, unwillingly working with the Bratva goons to keep them in his control, gets caught in a web of mystery, intrigue, crime, and conspiracy filled with treachery, action, chaos, and paranoia. Many parts of London get torn apart in John Wick style brutally nerve-wracking action scenes where Victor faces off against a worthy set of adversaries.
Renee, who’s an MI5 officer, a brilliant strategist and a diplomatic manipulator, added with her cold, inhumanely twisted and maniacally smart mind makes her a villain who matches Victor move for move in a game he doesn’t quite understand and never wanted to get involved in. Before the layers of suspense unravel within the book, Victor finds himself targeted by dangerous mercenaries due to his association with Gisele, the Russian mobster’s daughter, as a cover-up operation of an incident not connected to the Russians, Gisele, or Victor.
Like most of his books, Tom Wood is a master of weaving stories of dangerously wonderful chaos caused by unfortunate accidents that happen from certain characters’ misunderstandings, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just unlucky coincidences. This book’s plot is not high scale like his other books, but the rampaging action, the shockingly visceral gore, the brilliantly twisted and deadly characters, the snappy thought-provoking dialogues and character interactions, and the classically smart tradecraft makes it mandatory reading for aficionados of timelessly good action thrillers.
Matching Victor in brawn and tactical prowess is Sinclair, an animalistic and bloodthirsty mercenary, who’s a combination of a monstrously sadistic psychopath, a tactically brilliant hunter of humans, inhumanely amoral killer who doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions. Sinclair, an exciting adversary like all others in this series, is the type of character who goes rampaging through shootouts in crowded public places regardless of the number of civilians who suffer in the crossfire. He’s also the type of combatant who sacrifices his own teammates’ lives in order to kill his most exciting quarry(Victor). The final showdown between Sinclair and Victor is a brutally badass fight where both characters use their wits, tricks, senses, environment, and vicious savagery.
The interactions between Victor and Gisele explored depth and complexity into the series’ anti-hero whose specialty is in being logical, sociopathic, amoral, and professional to an inhuman standard to survive as an assassin. While the protagonist’s lifelong career has been in killing, he has to use his skills in this story to protect an unwilling, stubborn, and normal human who is targeted as a loose end for something she doesn’t know about. Each step taken by Victor in figuring out why Gisele’s targeted puts her closer to more danger than they can handle.
Victor’s cerebral games with Renee have the feel of classically smart espionage thrillers where they both try to outwit each other. Renee is a character who doesn’t hesitate to blackmail and extort her way through MI5’s upper management, private sector mercenary groups, criminal organizations, and other people just to keep her name clear from a legally disastrous situation. The way she keeps Sinclair under her control, and his interactions with the other mercenaries, would have made the duo a dangerously powerful force in a bigger scale plot.
A London based Russian mob boss, who gets used by both Renee and Victor, is left alive but gets his ego humiliated by both, leading to his actions after the climax which acts as the brilliantly fun opening sequence of the book in its non-linear narrative. Tom Wood’s books, including Better Off Dead, avoids any country vs country and hero vs villain nonsense. Though Victor can seem like the good guy against villains who are much worse than him, he keeps true to his antiheroic personality by shattering expectations at surprising moments where he’s truly himself. I wish there were more series protagonists similar to this smart freelance assassin who is written in plots so brilliantly woven that Tom Wood’s books feel like a darkly addictive narcotic.