Greg Rucka’s latest book, Alpha, is what I hope will be the first in a series of books about a new character, Jad Bell. The premise, like those of most Rucka books, is deceitfully straightforward. Bell, a military man of some ambiguous nature, is hired to protect an amusement park from a vague terrorist threat.
That premise tells you nothing about the twists and turns the plot take, the crosses and double crosses. It tells you nothing about the supporting characters and their roles in said plot. I will summarize by saying that there is not a single moment in this book where I felt lost, nor a single moment where I felt I could safely put the book down. That’s a hard line to ride in an action-packed novel. I’m not at all surprised to see Rucka do it again.
If you like smart, intelligently-written, real-world-style action stories about military dudes vs. terrorists, you should already be reading this book. It’s a shoo-in, a perfect fit. You will love it.
But there is so much more to Rucka’s writing. So much that is rewarding, so much depth and emotional truth.
The secret about Rucka’s work, the secret which isn’t a secret at all and which he tells people at every opportunity, is that he thinks all of his characters are people. Every twist and turn in Alpha is a result of thoughtful character-driven action. The people in his books want things, they fear things, they have agency. The plot is the result of that agency.
I read an interview recently with Elizabeth Bear about her new novel, Range of Ghosts. She was asked about something, and I don’t recall the question, but in response she explains that one of the bravest moments in the book is when a princess — not a lead character, not so far — decides to leave her home in the night. She is barefoot, she is terribly young, she is heavily pregnant.
This may seem an odd choice of bravery, in a book that features warriors and wizards. But warriors and wizards are trained to deal with moments of extreme danger or decision. They have planned and prepared. A teenage princess, faced with this situation, is making it all up as she goes. It’s the human, everyday bravery that makes me pause, that chokes me up a bit.
All through history, normal, everyday people have had to flee when bad things happened. We deal with it and move on, or we don’t. And we are remembered for what we did, either way.
There is a scene, in Alpha. The bad things have already started, and Jad is running across the amusement park to deal with events. On the way he encounters Lilac and three kids. Lilac is the name of a character at the amusement park. She is played by a pool of young women, eighteen-to-twenty-two years old, perhaps. Cheerleaders and gymnasts, we’ve been told earlier, who can act and who never lose their temper or break character.
Horrible things are in progress, and Lilac is escorting the three kids to safety. In the scene that follows, she is smart, she is decisive, and she never breaks character. Neither Bell nor the reader ever learn her name. She remains Lilac the meerkat, the heart of the Flower Sisters.
This is a bit-part, a scene midway through the book. Yet the essential humanity and agency of this character is the most important thing in the scene. Yes there is action, guns, whatever. Without us caring about Lilac, we have a pedestrian moment of good guys and bad guys and, oh noes, wee kids in danger, yawn. With Lilac, we have Jad and her — two human beings in terrible circumstances who must trust each other and make insanely smart decisions without enough data, with human life on the line.
That scene captures, for me, why I read every Greg Rucka book, comic, interview, or pamphlet I can find. He never, ever forgets that he is writing about people. Good guys, bad guys, muddling-along middling guys who just want to go home, they are all comprehensibly human. That is a rare, fine, incandescent thing, that Rucka does. It is always worth your time and money.
The fact that the plots barrel along is purely a bonus.
Normally, I would end a blog post like this with an explanation of who I think would like the book, and who it’s not for. But I think everyone should give Rucka’s work a chance, even if — especially if — you think it’s not a genre you typically enjoy, or it sounds like it might not be for you. Try it, try one, give it a shot. Fistful of Rain is about an alcoholic rock star and some blackmail. Keeper is about a bodyguard. Batman No Man’s Land is about Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle. Or go ahead and jump in with this latest book, the one I devoutly hope will start another series, Alpha.
Go on, give it a shot. You won’t be bored.