Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 3 August 2021)
Length: 433 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Stephen King returns with another exceptional read, Billy Summers, an awesome and memorable character driven thriller that has proved to be one of the best books of the year so far.
2021 has been quite an amazing year for Stephen King, who has released two outstanding and impressive novels in a short period of time. His first book of 2021 was the interesting horror novel, Later, which followed a child who can see and talk to the recently deceased. While I have not had a lot of experience reading Stephen King novels in the past, I really got into Later due to its likeable characters and thrilling narrative, and it ended up being one of the best audiobooks I listened to in the first part of 2021. Due to how much I liked Later, I made sure to keep an eye out for any additional Stephen King releases, and I was extremely intrigued to see that he had a second book coming out with a great-sounding plot. As a result, this second novel, Billy Summers, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of the year, and I was excited when I received my copy, especially as it contained a really cool story.
Billy Summers is an assassin and gun for hire. A maestro with a sniper rifle and a master of elaborate escapes, there are few killers better than him. However, for all his skills, Billy has one unusual quirk: he has a conscience and a moral code which limits him to only taking out contracts on targets he considers to be bad guys. After a lifetime of killing, as both an assassin and a soldier, Billy wants out, and he is willing to take one final job to retire. Luckily, his employer has a job that fits all his criteria.
Taken to the small city of Red Bluff on the East Coast of America, Billy is hired to kill a notorious gangster and killer who is currently locked up in Los Angeles but due to be extradited back to Red Bluff. Billy’s boss wants the target dead the moment he arrives to stop him making a deal with the authorities ahead of his murder trial. With a massive pay cheque on the line, Billy accepts the job, despite some odd stipulations. As part of their plan to take out their target, Billy will need to take on the identity of an author working in the office complex overlooking the courthouse and maintain his cover for as long as it takes the extradition process to go through.
Despite misgivings about the job, Billy dives into the role as required and soon establishes himself as a regular figure in the office block. As he waits for his target to arrive, Billy begins to get to know the people around him and takes the opportunity to write a memoir about his life and the decisions that led to him becoming a killer. However, the closer he gets to the conclusion of the job, the more he suspects that nothing involved with this assassination is on the level, and that his bosses intend from him to die as well. Making his own plans in case things go sideways, Billy prepares to end his career as an assassin on his own terms. But then he meets Alice, and everything changes.
Well damn, how the hell does King do it? After nearly 45 years of writing, you’d think the man would run out of unique and compelling ideas, but that apparently is not the case, as his latest book, Billy Summers, turned out to be quite an exceptional read. King has produced an impressive and powerful story that follows a complex and well-established protagonist as he experiences life for the first time. With some outstanding characters, a deeply thrilling storyline and some intriguing insights into the human condition, this was an outstanding read that was easily one of the best books I read in 2021 and which got a full five-star review from me.
Billy Summers contains a pretty addictive and powerful story that I found to be really cool. The book is primarily told through the eyes of the titular Billy and shows him as he prepares to take on his final job. King does a great job of introducing the character and the scenario, and you are soon placed into the midst of a very cool storyline as Billy moves into suburbia under an assumed identity to build his cover. This results in some compelling character interactions, as Billy simultaneously prepares for his assassination mission with his employers while also getting close to some of the people he encounters and starts to see what a normal life feels like. At the same time, he also builds up a third identity to use after the job is completed, which requires him to assume a different disguise and create some additional personal connections. He also starts writing a personal memoir which tells a slightly altered version of his life story, including his rough childhood, his military career, and his early contract work. This mixture of intriguing and fascinating story threads come together extremely well in the first half of the novel, and you get quite a unique and compelling narrative which perfectly blends thriller excitement with personal character growth.
After a big moment halfway through the novel, the entire storyline dramatically changes, especially as Billy is introduced to a key character, Alice. While there is still a large amount of focus on the job from the first half of the novel and its consequences, the story noticeably morphs at this point, really diving into the relationship that develops between these two characters. The storyline also moves away from some of the prior relationships that were introduced, and moves into a road trip, with Billy now accompanied by Alice. There are some really good sequences in this second half of the novel, as well as a continued exploration of Billy’s past. King does a fantastic job morphing the various story threads and plot ideas into a cohesive and captivating narrative, and I really enjoyed the powerful combinations. The set pieces are a series of awesome action sequences, which help tie up several of the main story threads and lead up to the book’s epic conclusion. While King is often criticised for his endings, I felt that Billy Summers had an exceptional and incredible conclusion that I deeply enjoyed. This great conclusion is both tragic and memorable, and it ties together the entire novel extremely well, helping to turn Billy Summers into one of the best stories I have read all year.
I really enjoyed King’s writing style in this novel, especially as it focused a lot on character development and interactions between unique people. The entire novel has a very philosophical bent to it, as King and his characters take time to explore the human experience, especially those aspects of life that people on the outside, such as BIlly, miss out on. While you wouldn’t think that this would pair well with a thriller story about an assassin, it actually works extremely well, especially when combined with Billy’s journaling scenes, and readers are guaranteed to fall in love with this distinctive form of storytelling. I also liked the author’s great use of various settings which help to show off the uniqueness of America’s landscapes. King features several different locations, including suburbia, the inner city, the wide open road, the isolated Colorado mountains, and even some more famous locations, like fabulous Las Vegas. Each location offers the reader and the characters something new to enjoy or appreciate, and King makes sure to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of these various settings. While King does move away from some of his more extreme murder sprees in this novel, there are some dark moments in this book. Not only are there some very graphic action sequences, but readers should also be warned about the sexual violence content, especially one scene where Billy enacts some justice. I’m also slightly concerned that King might end up getting sued by Rupert Murdoch for a certain facsimile character who does some bad things. Overall, though, I really enjoyed the way King told his latest unique story, and there is something for everyone in it.
As I mentioned above, I don’t have the most experience reading Stephen King novels, with only a few of his more recent reads under my belt. Despite this, I was easily able to enjoy Billy Summers, especially as it is a standalone thriller with one-shot characters. As a result, this is a book that any reader can easily pick up and get into, and I really liked how open the author made Billy Summers. However, fans of King, as well as those people generally aware of his work, will probably have fun seeing the references to some of King’s previous books. One of his more iconic works is referenced several times, especially as the protagonists end up spending time near a pivotal location. While this is not particularly essential to the plot, it was a nice callback, and I think that most people will appreciate the fun self-homage. I also found it interesting that both of King’s novels of 2021 had a compelling focus on writing, which becomes a key part of the plot. While Later focused more on the publishing side of things, Billy Summers contains a fantastic examination of the difficulties of putting your ideas to paper as a writer, with the protagonist attempting to write his life story in his downtime. While there are several fantastic advantages to the writing subplot, such as it being a great way to introduce the protagonist’s backstory in a compelling and episodic manner, I also quite enjoyed seeing the depiction of the writing process, and the various difficulties of telling a story. It very much felt that King was pouring some of his own experiences with writing into these sections of the novel, and it was incredibly fun and insightful to see one of the world’s greatest authors depict the difficulties of writing in one of his novels.
Another area that Billy Summers excelled in is the fantastic central and supporting characters. King does a remarkable job of introducing a diverse cast of characters, each of whom affect the character in various ways, either by showing him what his missing, or showing him what he is better than. The most focused character is naturally the titular protagonist, Billy Summers, a brilliant contract killer who only kills bad people. Billy is a remarkably complex figure, who builds several different personalities and personas around himself for professional reasons and protection. I really enjoyed the intriguing portrayal of this character, mainly because you got to see at least four different versions of him in the first half of the book. While the narrator is the calm and collected lover of classic novels who is basically a good guy, despite being an elite professional killer able to see every angle and work out the best way to kill someone and escape, that is a viewpoint that only the readers sees, at least at the start of the novel. Billy hides this real side of himself from the rest of the world, effecting a less intellectual personality to his criminal associates, which he calls his “dumb self”, to fool them and think he’s less of a threat.
While his dumb self is usually enough to get by, his new assignment requires him to take up the identity of a struggling author who moves into a suburban neighbourhood and a local office block to focus on his upcoming bestseller. Billy is forced to integrate into these social systems to keep his cover, and he soon makes friends amongst the people he meets, many of whom have an impact on him due to their honesty, innocence, and normality, all of which Billy has long given up. He also builds up yet another identity to rent an additional house, which he plans to use as a safe house if the job goes wrong, which forces him to deal with additional normal people. On top of that, he also takes the opportunity to write a memoir of his life, not only to maintain his cover but to satisfy his own curiosity about the writing process. This proves to be a delicate balancing act, as he attempts to give an honest account of his past while also trying to keep up the charade of being dumb in case his employers read the story he writes. This results in a unique, multifaceted character, and you get hints at the true nature of Billy, not just from the narration, but from seeing the similarities and differences between the various versions he presents to the world.
Billy’s life changes even further when he meets Alice, a woman who he meets at the very worst time of her life. Saving her initially to maintain his cover, Billy soon finds himself drawn to protecting Alice, who has no-one and is having trouble getting over her trauma. Billy soon works in a fantastic and touching relationship with Alice, as the two become close and help each other see the world in other ways. Not only is Alice a great character in her own right, especially as King presents a very real and moving portrayal of a damaged and lost woman, but she also brings out the best in Billy. While Alice does imprint on Billy due to her trauma, she also encourages him and gets him to continue writing his book. This powerful bond they form soon becomes a central part of the book’s plot, and it is extremely fascinating and compelling to see what happens to them. These exceptional characters and deep personalities really turn Billy Summers into an exceptional read, and I become severely invested in their story, even though I knew it was likely to end badly.
Stephen King has once again shows why he is the premier fiction author in the world today with another intense and exquisite read in Billy Summers. Featuring a deep and captivating narrative about a complex character, Billy Summers was an absolute treat to read, and comes highly recommended. Readers will swiftly fall in love with the unique narrative and compelling leading figures, and I guarantee that you will have trouble putting this excellent novel down. Easily one of the best books of 2021, I cannot praise Billy Summers enough.