Tom Wood writes the smartest anti-hero action thrillers of our time that intellectually stimulates his readers while still giving a fun, mind-blowing experience. The Game proves to be a unique story that destroys many known tropes and left me stunned at the protagonist’s (and other characters’) amoral, cold, calculating, efficient brilliance that’s humanized in serious ways.
The protagonist of this series is known to the readers as Victor. It’s just a word which the author uses to identify the character in his prose for his readers. But Victor’s real name, his past, his nationality, and his personal details are not known to any of the characters present in the book, and neither is it revealed to the readers. Yet, this anonymous, freelance assassin is written in ways that make him feel heavily fleshed out, understandable and emotionally connected to the readers.
We meet Victor in the opening sequence while he’s tailing another professional freelance assassin, Felix Kooi, in the streets of Algiers. They are both professionals with good tradecraft to stay hidden and spot a tail. But Kooi spots the tail and runs, leading to an exciting chase that ends with him getting killed by Victor. Their exchange of words while Kooi bleeds to death beautifully portrays the grim realities of being an assassin while setting up the emotional twists of the book.
Victor’s interactions with his plastic surgeon after recovering from a facial reconstruction surgery further explore his ghastly, sociopathic personality in ways no normal action hero would behave. His priorities throughout the series are in his anonymity, survival, and professional efficiency at being the smartest killer to keep himself alive.
On the surface, he’s polite and likes good manners, literature(includes fun stories, classics, and history), fine but bland colored suits, comfortable hotels, and clean food + fine cuisines. He never uses curse/swear words and hates it when other people use profanity in their language. At the same time, he is a high functioning sociopath who hasn’t gone psychotic despite his career choice. He focuses on blending in, being forgettable, avoiding suspicion, and not having any attachments. This means that no other character knows anything real about him. He’s good at socially engineering his way in and out of scenarios with functional manipulations while being emotionally detached from everyone and everything. Victor might be the result if Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock lived devoid of any family, friends, home, fame, and moral restrictions.
In a typical story, Victor would fit the characteristics of a villain. Yet, he’s likable and easy to cheer for when he’s up against characters who are much worse in deranged, psychotic, deadly, and monstrously smart ways. Victor is in no way heroic or a good person, but he’s the person to root for when dangerous and wickedly interesting people are pitted against each other in the complications of a Tom Wood book.
The main plot of The Game kicks off when a team of covert operatives track Victor down in Vienna and hunt him through the city, only to get outsmarted by him. He finds out that they are American intelligence officers who want to hire him, but he mechanically outsmarts and overpowers them, while almost killing them with ease but deciding against it.
Victor personally hates working for any country, and his professional code is against meeting his clients. He ideally gets his contracts through brokers online from behind many hidden layers of security and misdirection.
Though against his own rules, he takes the job as it’s connected to his previous hit, and to not make himself a target that the CIA would channel their efforts into. Victor has to now impersonate Kooi, his previous target/victim, to meet the deceased assassin’s mysterious employer and find out their next move aka Kooi’s next job.
While the previous books in this series saw Victor operating as an assassin, The Game puts him into a deep undercover role where he has to use all his wits, social engineering tricks, manipulations, and smarts to stay alive and figure out what he needs to know. He gets himself trapped within a band of twisted, dangerous, mysterious, sociopathic, and psychotic killers where all his moves at being Kooi only propel him closer to his explosive demise.
This story mixes heavy elements of mystery, paranoia, confusion, satisfyingly shocking twists, tradecraft, and deception of old school classic espionage stories with this series’ well-executed themes of anti-heroism, realistic but brutal action sequences, and amoral, cunning characters. While a major portion of the story is set in an old farmhouse in the Italian countryside, there are bloody shootouts through the streets of Rome and a twisted but fun sequence in an embassy building where Victor’s brilliance excels delightfully.
Kooi’s employer, Robert Leeson, stays layered and mysterious for a long time, but he’s not the only villain who steals the show. Hart, a character who properly appears after midway through, changes the atmosphere on arrival. He’s the most dangerous, monstrous, inhumanely smart and efficient character whose very presence silences and freezes all the other dangerously amoral professional killers in the scene. Even Victor fears Hart with good reason. Another notable character is Francesca who plays the part of the femme fatale, but Tom Wood crashes this trope to make her a psychotic, twisted person who is eliminated by Victor.
The Game connects Victor personally to the plot in a karmic mind@#$% when the well-teased mystery is revealed. But the irony is lost to many major characters involved, as Victor was convincing at being Kooi. The suspense, tension, and excitement are constantly present till the end where Victor’s delightfully twisted mind clashes with and outlives Hart.
This is another series that thankfully avoids the politics of nation vs nation or ideology vs ideology. Almost all the characters in this series are amoral and practical, with shades of gray in their twisted hearts. Tom Wood writes in a witty, classical, and deviously exciting style with striking prose, dialogues, and characters, giving his books the feel of timeless, smart thrillers.