K.J. Howe has written a slick action-adventure featuring a kickass heroine, well-crafted set pieces, and authority about the shadowy world of kidnapping.
Let’s take them in order.
Thea Paris is the daughter of a Greek tycoon who has become part of a private-sector team handling kidnappings. Thea has the requisite action-hero specs: incredible survival and fighting skills, familiarity with weapons and toys, and a family secret that triggers an abduction that shakes her to the core.
The antagonist, we learn quite early in the book, is her brother, who was a kidnap victim as a child, and it’s his ordeal and the family’s response that sets in motion the crisis in The Freedom Broker.
The best parts of the book are the action sequences. Howe, in her acknowledgements, takes pride in having researched these to the detail. She writes with pace and conviction, and when Thea goes in, weapon in hand, you’re there with her.
Howe also knows how to frame the setting for the big fight scenes, whether it is on board a stolen container ship, or the climax at Victoria Falls. She has clearly been writing with Hollywood in mind, which is no bad thing.
The third strength of this debut novel is Howe’s knowledge of the kidnapping world. Kidnapping is big business, particularly in troubled countries. There are real-life companies who try to help traveling executives or other targets protect themselves in hostile environments. Thea works for a fictional organization that goes further: to attempts to actually free people, by force if necessary.
I’m convinced by Howe that such organizations exist and do send in mercenary-like teams to secure hostages and fight their way to safety if need be. It makes for a great premise for a thriller series. There’s a lot more a writer can do with this.
We live in an age of highly industrialized private-sector armies, in which much of the American war in Afghanistan, for example, has been outsourced. I’d be interested to see if Howe can bring to light the darker side of freelance kidnap rescue operations in subsequent books. (Howe hints at this in the cordial relationship Thea has with a U.S. federal agent who is also charged with rescuing abducted persons – they respect each other personally, but it’s clear the Fed doesn’t generally think much of the private-sector cowboys.)
Audiences these days respect, or crave, authenticity. The thriller genre demands it. But I also think that sometimes research and accuracy can be fetishized. Tom Clancy’s the one who made it necessary for anyone writing military-styled thrillers to go deep into the knowledge. But you can have too much of a good thing. The Freedom Broker has a few clunky moments where the technical interrupts the pace.
For example: “She accelerated to full throttle. Hakan would be there in less than an hour from Athens, riding in an Aerospatiale SA 360, which had a top speed of 275 km/h.” The next paragraph picks up with the wind in her hair.
Sometimes we want to know what kind of helicopter it is. We want to know that the writer has a handle on the story. But sometimes, we don’t need to know its top speed in such clinical terms, or exactly what make of Aerospatiale it is. The facts don’t add to the story.
There’s a few other examples in the book of this sort of thing, but Howe at least doesn’t make the mistake of substituting a weapon’s make for character (which a lot of military-techno writers do, as if we all know the type of gun, and so we know what kind of tough guy or scumbag we’re dealing with).
I’m quibbling. The Freedom Broker is entertaining and I bet Howe had a blast doing the research. But for the sequel, I’d like to see the facts blend a little more into the background as Howe explores some of the moral questions of freelance rescue operators taking extra-judicial measures.