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Critical Condition

  Critical Space
Greg Rucka
Bantam, 2001
Rating: 3.9
 

Posted: November 3, 2001

By 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 formulaic.

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 open.

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 nave 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 best efforts?

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 -- to 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.

Related Links:

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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