Rated | Alphabetical
Kevin Forest Moreau
Greg Rucka, in his series of thrillers featuring Gen-X
good guy Atticus Kodiak, has constantly displayed a willingness to make subtle
incursions at the borders of serial crime fiction. For starters, the likeable
Kodiak is neither police detective, private investigator nor super-spy, but
instead a professional bodyguard, a device that allows Rucka to explore a whole
different patch of turf from his contemporaries, and explore it well. The
dramatic gold he's been able to mine from such a simple and seemingly repetitive
premise -- keep your principal safe and alive -- in such riveting works as Keeper
and Smoker hints at fresh new possibilities in a genre many find staid and
What's more, Rucka's detailed eye for evolving characterization -- especially
in the complex, ever-mutating relationship between the pierced Kodiak and his
attitude-heavy sometime-paramour Bridget Logan -- rings truer, and renders the
series more lifelike, than many of even the best contemporary crime/thriller
series. Almost nothing in Rucka's books happens in a vacuum. Incidents and
character details in earlier installments leave haunting echoes in future works.
All of which makes Critical Space, Rucka's fifth novel, one of his most
compelling -- and also his most flawed. Because here, Rucka isn't content merely
to tweak the storytelling conventions of the genre -- he aims to blow them wide
Space opens on a world that's changed, completely, for Kodiak and his
fledgling bodyguard outfit, KTMH Security (which the former solo operative
formed in the previous book, Smoking at Midnight, in a tale mostly
narrated by, and focusing on, Logan rather than Atticus). Instead of struggling
for work, as most new companies might do (especially one headed by so
controversial a figure as the unlucky Kodiak has managed to become), KTMH
suddenly finds itself an unqualified success after thwarting an attempt on the
life of a crusading member of British royalty. Kodiak finds himself the newest
tabloid target of the moment, and feels himself and his company drifting from
the kind of work they'd formed to do, bogged down with high-profile babysitting
details for spoiled celebrities.
But then Kodiak gets word -- by way of the FBI -- that a hired assassin,
code-named "Drama", -- whom Kodiak had somehow managed to keep from
killing a tobacco industry whistle-blower at the end of Smoker -- is back
in the States, perhaps peeved about a best-selling book by Kodiak's friend Chris Havel. Refreshingly, Kodiak is scared almost witless. He's not so naïve as to
think that he'll be so lucky a second time, should Drama show up seeking
revenge -- a very real possibility.
But Drama's intentions are not nearly so predictable. After kidnapping Lady
Antonia Ainsley-Hunter (the selfsame royal that catapulted Kodiak to fame) right
from under his nose, she leads him on a long and complicated goose chase whose
purpose seems to be Atticus' death, but turns out to be something different altogether
when he awakens, very much alive, sometime later on an island in the Caribbean.
Turns out that what Drama actually wants is protection, from another hired
killer -- a fellow code-named "Oxford" and one of Drama's contemporaries
in The Ten, a loose conglomerate of the world's most feared assassins. Her
failure in the earlier book, it appears, has compromised her in some peoples'
eyes, and who better to turn to for help than the man who earlier thwarted her
Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Atticus, perhaps sensing
that such a job would return him to his roots, agrees, and it's to Rucka's
credit that so controversial a decision turns out to be a costly one, both in
terms of lives lost and most of Kodiak's relationships -- both personal and
professional. By the end of Critical Space, Kodiak's entire world has changed
yet again, this time much more irrevocably. Moral and ethical lines have been
crossed, friendships and partnerships strained (many to the breaking point), and
there's no going back.
Rucka's determination to fully extrapolate the real-life consequences of
Kodiak's decisions is commendable, as is his willingness -- nay, his eagerness
shake the reader's already-diminishing sense of complacency. For better or
worse, the actions taken and decisions made in Space have permanent,
dramatic repercussions. And while many of the goings-on are likely to leave the
reader shaken, even disturbed, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
But Rucka's jones to seriously screw with his already malleable status quo
overpowers the very realism it aims to dump in the reader's lap. Because what's
even more jarring than Kodiak's actions is the fact that we never fully
understand their motivation. Yes, real life is often murky, and people often
make inscrutable choices. But it's hard to root for a protagonist who doesn't
explain, or attempt to justify, such a radical shift. Space flirts with
the idea that Kodiak is a victim of "Stockholm Syndrome" -- in which
hostages often form deep emotional bonds with their captors. And one can argue
that it's to Rucka's credit that he never gives a cut-and-dried answer: Again,
real life is rarely so easy.
But realism doesn't always make for satisfying fiction. Not when it's crucial
for the reader to empathize with, if not condone, the hero's actions. For most
of Critical Space, there's a disconnect between Kodiak and the reader
that's almost as palpable and unbridgeable as the one between the protagonist
and his friends. And while such risk-taking practically guarantees that Rucka's
next installment will be hotly anticipated by fans, that sense of uneasiness
lingers, which remains Space's critical flaw.
Comics: Queen &
Country: Operation: Broken Ground
One Bad Mutha-Rucka
All of Rucka's Atticus Kodiak novels are worth reading;
start with Keeper and Finder and work your way through.
Comics fans will appreciate Batman: No Man's Land, a novelization
of the gritty Batman story arc that sees Gotham City, devastated by plague
and earthquake, abandoned by the United States. Likewise, Whiteout
and Whiteout: Melt collect Rucka's comic book adventures of a feisty
U.S. Marshall policing the icy tundra.
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