Matt Drake, the hero of Don Bentley’s debut thriller, is a psychologically scarred, emotionally intense, haunted and bruised, but brutally relentless character who is on a suicide mission for personal redemption in Without Sanction. This action thriller is a class apart from most in the genre and takes a darkly emotional dive into the personal costs of being a covert warrior and the diabolical realities in the lives of such figures. Even with the many layers of narratives and numerous plots running parallel, it’s a character-driven story that’s too compelling and a hard feat for most debut authors.
After losing the life of an asset and his family in an operation gone horribly wrong in Syria, Matt Drake is guilt-ridden and on a sabbatical from his work and family. He’s hallucinating the ghosts of the people he’s failed, but his self-destructive spree is ruined when his boss brings him back in for an emergency mission. An asset he’s tried to cultivate surfaces with information about a chemical weapon he’s created and the intel for the location of a captured American paramilitary operator who’s scheduled for execution by terrorists. This asset, codenamed Einstein, trusts only Drake to bring him in, but the whole situation is riddled with many power players within the White House who desperately try to stop this from happening for their own agendas.
It’s a political thriller on one side and a tactical action thriller on the other, but both flow well with characters who are all well fleshed out, even some with sympathetic motivations behind their dastardly schemes. Matt Drake’s employer – the DIA(Defence Intelligence Agency) – was an interesting change from the Langley-based characters that have overpopulated the genre, and Bentley’s portrayed the DIA in a believable and exciting way. Drake’s boss is an awesome character who I feel should have a larger role in the upcoming books in the series.
Drake’s former partner, a Delta Force commando with the call sign Frodo, plays a major emotional role and saves the story and Matt multiple times in the book, with and without his limbs. Frodo, badass Delta operator assigned as the protective detail to Drake, loses an arm and cripples a leg while saving Drake in an ambush during the same tragic operation that killed their asset. The emotional bond between Frodo(who’s black/colored) and Drake(who’s white, who’ve served in the same military and survived the same hellholes, is executed brilliantly in this book on a level I’ve never read in action thrillers.
Drake’s Pakistani immigrant wife is also another surprising character that’s handled well with the intricacies of a mixed-race/inter-cultural marriage. Many parts of the book had me surprised as Bentley’s writing was emotionally gripping in ways action thrillers rarely are, but it’s definitely not a sappy, soft-hearted book. The high doses of dark comedy injected into the chapters with Drake’s first-person narration scenes were fun in twisted yet sometimes gut-wrenching ways, and Bentley’s put a lot of dark comedy even in the third-person perspective chapters that tackle the other main characters and the multiple plots.
The action is bloody, gruesome, and the entire book’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. Most fans of this genre who are gun nuts will have a fun time with the detailed focus on weapons, technology, and hi-tech gear that Bentley’s scattered in many parts. A sequence with fighter planes engaging each other over the Russian-controlled airspace in Syria was on par with the works in Tom Clancy’s recent books. Without Sanction’s filled with chaos, brutal savagery, multiple double-crosses, political chess games at the cost of people’s lives, shifting alliances, detailed military maneuvers, gritty and dangerous spy games, a HAHO jump, and a bloody fight for survival in a hellhole that nobody wants to be in and Matt Drake’s dark humor and the first-person narrative gives the readers an experience that’s too realistic like being in the cockpit, trapped into the character’s mind. I don’t normally like the first-person narrative and try to avoid reading such books, but Don Bentley knows how to handle it well in a darkly gripping way.
Drake’s journey into Syria leads to uncovering more than what he’d expected, making him go rogue and operate without sanction to rescue the captive operator as the CIA’s agenda seems to cause the opposite result with an incompetent case officer who’s a political puppet working with a warlord responsible for crippling Frodo and killing Drake’s asset and his family. This is far from a typical action thriller in the post-9/11 subgenre, but Without Sanction sets up the pieces for a long story arc for many books in the series involving the subplots with the Russians, Drake’s personal life, the shady maneuvers within the White House, a mysterious villain who has more to the story than his small role in this book, the politics within the CIA and the DIA. Without Sanction is a must-read for hardcore fans of the genre who’ll now have a new favorite series to follow for many years to come.