Most people don’t see a moral gray area when it comes to killing other human beings, but there are certain evils in the world that must be eradicated, whether or not the public is told about it. There are also those shadowy figures in our government’s Rolodex, agents who operate in the darkness, doing what “needs” to be done to protect their country.
In Island of the Assassin by Joseph Roccasalvo, loyalty, morality, and abstract ideas of the greater good collide in a stunning and revelatory novel about the fuzzy edges of good and evil.
Kai Landrie is a trained killer, contracted out by the CIA to do the dirty work in hard-to-reach places with hard-to-kill terrorists. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. The intense demands of the job begin to weight on the soul of the main character, however, so he decides to unburden himself in one of the oldest ways we know – religion. He forms an unlikely relationship with a priest, Peter Quince, who tries to help Kai find peace with what he’s done. Instead, Quince is dragged into the same messy world as his confessional companion, and is eventually used as a pawn by the CIA to keep Kai’s trigger finger working.
Aside from the direct plot, this book delves deeply into the world of covert operations and the means with which government organizations get their jobs done. It is a gritty and dark world when anti-terrorist organizations, intelligence agencies, and heartless killers are duking it out for the soul of the planet. Kai is right in the midst of it, which leads to a stunning philosophical drama playing out on these pages.
Is loyalty to country more important than your personal code? Is friendship more powerful than patriotism? What is the value of one life in the battle to save or liberate thousands? Kai works through many of these problems with Peter, while at others, he discovers the answers inside himself. For as action-heavy as the novel is, there is still ample time for reflection and thoughtful narration by the author.
The writing itself could use a bit of a polish, particularly in the structure of the sentences. Long stretches of short, choppy phrases become dull for the reader, and often remove the suspense or tension building in the story. Fortunately, it seems that the author loves research, and his scene-building is highly realistic, without packing the prose with exposition.
In troubled times like the present, a book such as this serves as a reminder of the battles being fought on so many sides, both on the front lines and behind the scenes, in dark holding cells and back room negotiations. There is a moral urgency in this novel that makes it extremely timely and thought-provoking, two excellent qualities for new books in this day and age.
In Island of the Assassin, Roccasalvo has created two engaging and believable characters who jointly struggle to find harmony in a discordant world. Watching these two men define themselves and sharpen the edges of their morality makes for a truly memorable read. A gritty and thought-provoking thrill ride.
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