Review: Sierra Six – Gray Man #11 (Mark Greaney)

I am, generally, a huge fan of origin stories – assuming they’re not of the generic, giant trope-y type. You know those. Those are the ones where the lead had a perfect life before violence came to visit. Let me assure you, writers and readers alike, that there is no perfect life, and the perfect lives upended by sudden violence, with a vow of revenge afterward are, in a word, boring. I want to see the lead struggle with something before struggling with another something.

Which brings us to Sierra Six. This is book eleven in the series, and by now, we’ve seen Court Gentry go from CIA hit dude to member of one of CIA’s back ops teams Sierra Golf (Court’s call sign: Sierra Six) to private hit dude with the CIA and Suzanne Brewster (his last boss before she punted him) on his trail, trying to take him out. What is Court doing these days? Taking private contracts, of course. It isn’t like the guy is going to retire to a beach and drink Mai Tais.

Before we go on: if you’re a reader jumping in at this point in the series, do yourself a favor and go to book one and begin there. About half of the things in this book will not make a lot of sense, or will appear to have no bearing at all on the other half of the book. Besides, it’s a great series and a lot of fun to read.

But we open, in Sierra Six, twelve years ago. Zack Hightower – a familiar enough name to readers of the series – leading Sierra Golf on an op to take out a terrorist and any other bad guys around him. It isn’t giving anything away to say that Sierra Six gets smoked after opening a hatch and finding a nest of bad guys, all with guns pointing up. This is not the first Sierra Six they’ve lost, either. They’ll need a new one. This mission, however, is over, and they get out, back to base.

They get Court, who is used to working alone and initially doesn’t fit well with the team in training. Eventually, he gets himself on track, and Sierra Golf is ready to go find the bad guy and try again. This is the mission in the past.

Back to the present (book time present). Court is on a contract, staking out a small villa, watching for the chance to get to that villa when the target has arrived. He does so, and is about to kill the man when h realizes this guy should be dead. But he isn’t, Court misses the chance, and has to escape.

He’s been helped by a young woman operating a drone. She’s captured by the bad guy’s minions, and now we have the mission in the present: rescue the young woman and kill the terrorist before he’s able to do any further evil deeds.

By now, most readers will have surmised that the mission in both time periods concerns the same bad guy, and it does. From here to the end, I won’t be giving away a ton of details of what happens in the book.

What I will say is this: I’ve tons of books. If you’re reading this on Goodreads, you can see the numbers, and these are only the things I have read since joining Goodreads plus the things i could remember reading prior to that time. The actual number is likely twice, perhaps twice and a half that. Why do I mention this?

It means I’ve read a number of books that are self-contained origin stories. Many series that have the same main characters will have them. Stephen Hunter took us to Vietnam for Bob Lee Swagger’s origin, for instance. The Hobbit is itself ab origin story for the Lord of the Rings. Comic books – well, they’re rife with origin stories, for both heroes and villains.

This is not to say that every character needs an origin story that encompasses everything in their life to point X or that begins at their birth (Superman), although sometimes some information about their childhood is helpful to know – Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down when he was a boy, for instance. What we, or at least I, want to know is what changed this character deep down within themselves. Mack Bolan’s family is killed by his own father over despair about debt owed to a Mafia loansharking operation, leading Bolan to begin a campaign against the loansharks and then against the larger Mob.

Most of the background we get on series characters comes in pieces via narrative of the events in the current book-time. In Gregg Hurwitz’s excellent Orphan X series, we get pieces of how Evan Smoak, literal orphan, and later Orphan X, came to be. Sometimes, it’s just a paragraph or two, sometimes, it’s longer, as when he’s thinking about Jack, who basically became Evan’s father.

What I don’t think I’ve ever read, though, is a book that so effortlessly and (more importantly) readably (is this a word?) combines both an origin story and a current story told in an alternating fashion, where both parts, the past and the present, have very real stakes and are both incredibly well done – to the point where either of them, on their own, would be an excellent book, but where together, they are even better than a single book on each would be.

There are no wasted characters. We don’t have Joe Smith show up in the story, only to have nothing to say or do that impacts anything. There are no wasted, throwaway scenes or dialogue. The twin stories are compelling, the action (as usual) fantastic, even if having someone jump from a construction crane, during a monsoon, onto a level of an uncompleted office building, or having them pole vault using bamboo taken from a scaffolding are perhaps stretching things a bit. There is an absolutely extraordinary helicopter chase through mountainous terrain that will leave you breathless, and not from the altitude.

There is, alas, also loss. That loss is often the most compelling – and indeed, most propelling – event for the character. While some may argue that Court’s loss in this book is unrealistic and too brief to be meaningful, I’ll say that it is sometimes the briefest of connections whose severance wounds us most deeply.

An absolute five star read. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Berkley Publishing and NetGalley for the reading copy.

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