The StrikeBack series is way more messed up and serious in the books than in the amazing TV show, and I experienced it with the first in the series – Deathlist – which continues the story a few years after the original StrikeBack novel. John Porter, the protagonist of the original story, is a drunk who’s gone off control with his regret and disgrace from an incident a few years earlier, but is thrust into action when a coordinated terror attack hits the SAS training center massacring the new batch of graduating commandos. Porter and John Bald, the two surviving members of the attack, are picked up by the SIS(MI6) for a secret mission to strike back at those responsible for the attack. The plot seems simple and usual for the genre, but the book stands out from most in this genre in ways that shocked, amazed, and surprised me in provocative ways.
While the action thriller genre is overflowing with heroic, entertaining, acceptable protagonists, the characters on all sides of this story go overboard in their use of profanity, vices, violence, dark & cynical humor, to an extent that this book is definitely not for the fainthearted. Many of the main characters are racist, sexist, struggling with many personal demons, a lot more than borderline psychotic, and messed up in ways that are not done in most action thrillers. This may sound like a problem for some, but I liked that former commandos turned deniable killers on a blood-soaked revenge spree are shown as messed up humans instead of the stereotypical heroic and unrealistically moral characters that are common within the genre. I like those unrealistic heroes, but this book’s gloriously inappropriate boldness was a fun experience.
Deathlist flows at a good pace and takes its time to establish and develop all its characters and the plot which eventually leads to the creation of Section20 by the end after many double crosses, betrayals, tricks, lies, and a high amount of violence and shady, morally ambiguous events that make the StikeBack books a lot grayer than the TV show. Set in the late 90s, the political elements of the plot revolve around the Kosovo conflict and connect a genocidal warlord turned crime boss to secret far-right crusading traitors in the west, but most of the book is driven through Porter and Bald, and is written with high amounts of tactical detail and operational realism to make their black ops killing spree somewhat more believable than the usual fare of action thrillers.
Porter starts the story as a dysfunctional and self loathing alcoholic but develops into a smart and tough operator through the events of the story, and I liked that this development took its slow pace to happen instead of flipping his character immediately which would be unrealistic but done in many thrillers that I’ve read. Bald is a cynical and darkly comedic moron for most of the story who’s hiding his own secrets, but is brutally efficient and smart on the job, and is weirdly awesome by the end. Accompanying them are a few mercs from a Private Military Company, two female operatives from the SIS(MI6), and a few spymasters, all with their own agendas that clash in the end. Each kill from their Deathlist is accompanied by high amounts of planning, recon, and logistical detail, making it appear realistic without any entertaining action, but the scenes of torture and violence get too gory than the usual revenge action thrillers.
The main protagonists, Porter and Bald, are a mix of anti-heroes, heroes, and messed up psychopaths put together with many manipulative and cunning forces who use them as pawns, which is a concept done a lot in this genre, but Chris Ryan’s writing takes it far grimmer than most. The audiobook narration which I experienced felt cinematic or like a video game level production, and I’d recommend Deathlist for the aficionados of the genre who are in the mood for a darker, revenge fueled, action thriller.