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The Break Line by James Brabazon

Published by Berkley on January 29, 2019

Max McLean has the usual tough guy credentials — he’s seen “Syrian torture chambers” and “Columbian cartels’ killing rooms.” He’s killed a lot of people. McLean was identified in the military as a legally sane psychopath, someone who would follow orders to kill without questioning them, regardless of the circumstances. A couple of decades later, McLean has developed an ethic, if not a conscience. His failure to follow an order stirs up a commotion, but he is given a chance to redeem himself with a new assignment.

McLean is an off-the-books asset of the British government, a civilian assassin who, as part of “the Unknown,” does not officially exist. His new assignment, opposed by the more sensible heads on the team of decisionmakers, is to terminate the command and control of a group of rebels in Sierra Leone who are considered an imminent threat to the British government’s interests. The rebel force is believed to be ruthless and Russian-backed. The last guy the Brits sent on that mission returned without his sanity, although he might not have had much sanity to lose.

McLean’s first inkling of the trouble he’ll face comes when he encounters victims of gruesome killings who, in addition to being beheaded and disemboweled, seem to have been chewed upon by human teeth. The descriptions are quite graphic, although I imagine that sensitive readers who might be particularly disturbed by them do not read tough guy novels. Still, take this as a warning.

The underlying story — the mystery McLean uncovers in Sierra Leone — is not particularly original. That doesn’t make it a bad story (most thrillers aren’t particularly original) but don’t expect to encounter a “wow” factor.

The plot does offer one big surprise that plays into the developing characterization of McLean prior to the big reveal. The surprise might be a bit contrived but contrived surprises are common in modern thrillers, and this one is no more contrived than most. It also adds an interesting wrinkle to the story, which makes it forgivable.

McLean spends too much time telling us that he feels empty inside. Emptiness is standard characterization for a tough guy protagonist who has seen the horrors of war, but when it comes across as whining, readers lose empathy for the character. McLean’s abandonment issues are too heavy-handed to generate empathy, but at least they integrate well with the plot. And given that most action heroes are self-righteous nitwits, it is always a relief to find one who doesn’t consider himself the savior of the limited population groups he deems worthy of salvation.

Some of the story borders on the ridiculous. James Brabazon crosses the border by the novel’s end when the terrible evil is unleashed. The Break Line features some strong action scenes, although when one guy with a handgun took out six guys with assault rifles, I had to take a brief break from reading to roll my eyes. McLean dodges mortar rounds and RPGs and machine guns and takes on fighters who have the equivalent of superpowers. The story becomes more outlandish and less believable as it moves forward, but it is exciting in the way that video games can be fun without being plausible. And the ending, which reverts in some ways to a traditional spy thriller, is quite good.


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