I have been a big fan of Barry Eisler’s ever since I read his first John Rain novel (concerning the increasingly complex adventures of John Rain, a half-Japanese assassin who tangles with the CIA – and that brief sentence in no way does justice to the complexities of the plot). I was disappointed when Eisler stopped writing Rain novels and started writing other stuff, and it’s taken me this long to get to the first of these non-Rain Eisler books.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

Alex Treven is an ambitious, up-and-coming Silicon Valley attorney specializing in software. He’s got a client who has created a new piece of software that’s going to be a really big deal, though Alex isn’t entirely sure of what the software can do. His chances at making partner are drastically diminished when the client dies under suspicious circumstances, along with the patent examiner in charge of the case. Alex also narrowly escapes an assassination attempt in his own home. He has no one else to turn to other than his estranged brother, Ben, a deep-black special operator. There’s a great deal of bad blood between the two, though Ben arrives to bail Alex out of trouble, and they quickly go on the run along with an Iranian-American junior attorney from Alex’s firm named Sarah Hosseini. Things go downhill from there once they realize who is actually trying to kill them (no spoilers here). The action is generally very good, especially the scenes when Ben Treven is introduced in mid-operation. That’s classic Eisler at his finest. There’s also plenty of sexual tension between the two brothers – who each desire Sarah – and this works well, though, oddly, Eisler tells us about all of their individual masturbatory habits in throwaway lines. Did we really need to know this, Barry?

I should note that the book is explicitly set in the Rain universe (there’s a quick mention of John Rain) and for the most part the plot and attention to detail in the characters’ operations are up to Eisler’s usual standards. The characters were the biggest let-down for me, however. None of them grabbed me, or were at all sympathetic or enjoyable as human beings. It’s hard to believe, I know, but John Rain the assassin is actually a far more likable guy than either of the Treven brothers. Alex is too nakedly ambitious and cold, and Ben is, well, just kind of an angry, cynical jerk who’s grown emotionally detached from American culture and civil society.

I give this one 3.5 stars out of 5, as it was a fun, quick read, but it could have been better, especially in the area of characterization. I wanted very badly to care about these characters being in mortal danger, but they just weren’t very sympathetic. I plan to read the sequel, though I’m concerned that the topic of that one is another thinly veiled platform for Eisler to pontificate about torture being bad (Requiem for an Assassin suffered because of this). We’ll see.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers