Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet Train Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 16 March 2021)

English translation by Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 415 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Thriller is a genre that I have only really started reading in the last couple of years and it is swiftly growing to become one of the top types of novels I tend to check out.  While most of the thrillers I read are somewhat mainstream and from authors I have read before, I occasionally branch out and check out something from an unfamiliar author if it has an unusual-sounding plot synopsis which really grabs my attention.  One of the most recent of these was Bullet Train by bestselling Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka, which I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a little while ago.  Bullet Train, which is the first English translation of Isaka’s 2010 standalone novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle), is a unique and clever thriller which follows five very unusual killers who find themselves aboard the same ill-fated train ride.

On a seemingly normal day, a bullet train is setting out from Tokyo, making its regular trip to Morioka, with several stops planned along the way.  As the train leaves, everything appears quiet, except for the fact that five dangerous killers are on-board, each of them with a very different mission in mind.  The youngest killer, Satoshi, looks like an innocent schoolboy, but in reality his is a psychotic master manipulator, easily able to get people to do what he wants.  His latest victim was Kimura’s young son, who is now in a coma after being thrown off a building.  Kimura, a former hitter turned alcoholic, has tracked Satoshi to the train and intends to kill the youth in revenge.  However, when Kimura underestimates his opponent, he soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of survival, as he and Satoshi encounter some of the other passengers on board.

Nanao, the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’, has a relatively simple retrieval job that requires him to spend only a few minutes on the train.  However, when his unnatural bad luck conspires to keep him trapped aboard, he is forced into a desperate battle for survival.  At the same time, the lethal and unconventional assassin partners, Tangerine and Lemon, are also travelling to Morioka, until an untimely death puts them in the crosshairs of a notorious crime lord.  When a suitcase full of money also disappears, all five killers are forced to show their hands, beginning a desperate battle aboard the moving train.  However, as things get serious, the killers begin to wonder why all of them are aboard the same train and who is really pulling their strings.  As the bullet train pulls closer to its destination, betrayals, manipulations and secrets are revealed, and not everyone will survive to reach the last station.

Now this was an extremely awesome and deeply impressive novel that I am so very glad I decided to check out.  This translated novel from Isaka, an author who has written a massive collection of mystery and thriller novels over the last 20 years, including several that have been adapted into films, was a clever, fast-paced thrill ride that follows several awesome and captivating assassin characters.  This resulted in an epic and compelling read which proved to be extremely addictive and is one of the most entertaining books that I have read this year.

I absolutely loved Bullet Train’s slick and clever story that quickly dives between the book’s various characters.  Split between the five central killer protagonists, as well as a few intriguing supporting characters, Bullet Train has a particularly intricate narrative that is heavy on the twists, rapid turns and unique moments.  Isaka does an exceptional job setting the scene and introducing each of the great characters, and the reader is soon engrossed in seeing how the story and individual character arcs play out.  It does not take long for all five main characters to find themselves involved in some surprising and dangerous situations, which they must work to extricate themselves from.  As each character attempts to deal with their own problems, be they a dead client, stolen money, blackmail or being suddenly forced to deal with a dead body, their various storylines soon begin to intersect.  The way in which the individual storylines come together works extremely well and it proves to be extremely entertaining to see to the vibrant and distinctive personalities of each of the protagonists clash against each other when they meet.  Their intriguing interactions include some intense action sequences, clever manipulations and even some amusing confrontations that include anything from philosophical debates to discussions about a certain children’s show.  At the same time, the characters are also forced to contend with several additional complicating factors, including other killers aboard the train, seemingly oblivious onlookers, secrets from the past and a dangerous long-reaching plot.  All of this leads to an epic and clever conclusion that sees several protagonists die and a number of clever twists come to fruition.  I honestly did not see some of these cool twists coming and I ended up on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next and which of the characters were going to survive the whole thing.  I ended up being really impressed with this cool book and I really enjoyed this thrilling and compelling read.

While Bullet Train’s narrative itself is extremely cool, the true highlight of this epic book is the five killer main characters of the story.  All of these main characters are a lot of fun and the author has imbued them with some excellent and memorable traits and personalities.  All five characters add so much to the story in their own right, but their real strength is the way in which they interact with each other.  The way in which these unique protagonists play off each other is just perfect and it was great to see them get the measure of each other and fully understand just whom they are dealing with.  You really get invested in each of these five characters fates and it is rather interesting to see who survives until the end and who comes out on top.

The first two major characters featured within the book are the interesting combination of vengeful former hitman Yuichi Kimura and teenage manipulator Satoshi Oji.  Kimura is a recovering alcoholic who is hunting Satoshi due to the teen’s role in Kimura’s son getting pushed off a roof and ending up in hospital.  However, his attempts at revenge are quickly thwarted by Satoshi, whose nickname “the Prince” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the kid.  Using threats towards his comatose son, the Prince manipulates Kimura into helping him investigate the strange events occurring on the train, and the two quickly find themselves in the middle of the dangerous situations, with Kimura attempting to find a way to save his son while the Prince attempts to work the situation to his own advantage.  Both fantastic killers are well-written and compelling characters who add a significant amount to the tale.  You really get invested in Kimura’s struggle to save his son and overcome his own inner demons, while Satoshi serves as a particularly unlikeable villain, who you really want to suffer, even if he is a teenager.  Isaka also throws in a few intriguing flashbacks which highlight how the rivalry between the two started, and which helps to dive into both insecurities and fears.  Both end up having fantastic story arcs within this book, and I really enjoyed the complex web that the author wove around the two.

Another of the main characters is Nanao, a young professional killer with a conscience who has only recently entered into the game.  Nanao is an absolute sweetheart whose most defining characteristic is his abysmal bad luck, which plagues him throughout the course of the book.  It proves rather amusing to see all the dramatic and amusing setbacks that happen to Nanao during Bullet Train, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is actually cursed, a fact that he faces with particular sadness and a certain amount of fatalism.  You cannot help but feel for Nanao as the book progresses, and there is something about his general unhappiness with the situation that draws the reader to him.  Thankfully, he is also a particularly skilled operative, especially in dangerous situations, which gives him a fighting chance against his opponents, and the times when this resourcefulness appears are pretty awesome.  I personally felt that Nanao’s story arc was one of the best in all of Bullet Train and I really loved seeing the other side of the characters’ unluckiness eventually come into play, even if the protagonists never realised just what happened to him.

The final two killers featured within Bullet Train are the memorable partnership of Tangerine and Lemon.  Despite their similar appearance which makes many people believe that they are twins, Tangerine and Lemon are very different people, both with unique personalities that clash with one and other.  While Tangerine is the well-organised professional with a love for classic literature, Lemon is the wild card, a seemingly flaky and eccentric killer with an unnatural appreciation for the children’s show Thomas and Friends.  This makes for a very entertaining odd-couple pairing, as the two characters, who at times appear not to even like or understand each other, need to sort through the chaotic situation about the train.  While Tangerine is an enjoyable character who serves as a good straight man to some of the more outrageous personalities aboard, I definitely enjoyed Lemon way more.  Lemon is a wildly entertaining and captivating character whose unique viewpoint on life, which is inspired by Thomas and Friends, is both childlike and clever at the same time.  I really enjoyed seeing some of Lemon’s reactions and solutions to the problems he encounters, especially as he mainly draws on lessons from the characters in Thomas in Friends, when it comes to judging people (you really do not want to be a mean old Diesel).  This leads to some great scenes, especially as he can see through manipulations that have tricked some of the other characters.  It was also great to see the full breadth of the friendship between Tangerine and Lemon become clear as the book continued, especially as it leads to one of the best scenes in the entire book.  Each of these character arcs ended up being truly spectacular and I had an outstanding time seeing each of their unique tales unfold.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka was an epic and immensely captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed the unique and exciting tale told within it, loaded as it was with all manner of cool twists and surprise reveals, and I cannot emphasise how awesome the main five characters were.  This was a superb read and I will have to keep an eye out for English translations of any of Isaka’s other books.  I am also quite excited for the upcoming film adaption of this book, also titled Bullet Train.  I assume that this English translation novel is the result of the major Hollywood adaption of Maria Bītoru that is currently in production, and which looks set to feature an impressive array of actors including Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zazie Beets, Lady Gaga and Sandra Bullock.  While I am a little uncertain about why a film set on a bullet train in Japan is going to feature a primarily American cast, this looks set to be a fun movie, especially if it lives up to this impressive and clever novel.

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Make sure to also check out my review for the connected Kotaro Isaka novel, Three Assassins, here.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg

The Black Hawks Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Audiobook – 3 October 2019)

Series: Articles of Faith – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to join the roughest, toughest and most maladjusted mercenary band in the land with The Black Hawks by David Wragg, and excellent fantasy debut that was a lot of fun to read.

Vedren Chel is a minor noble struggling to adjust to his life as a knight and glorified servant to his lazy step-uncle.  Hoping to escape the meaningless existence that has been forced upon him, Chel suddenly finds himself thrust into a great adventure when a mysterious enemy force invades the city he is stuck in, causing panic and confusion all around.  Managing to flee from the chaos, Chel finds himself the inadvertent travelling companion to the useless and cowardly Prince Tarfel, the King’s son and second in line to the throne.

Accompanying Tarfel to safety, Chel hopes to be rewarded with his freedom and the chance to forge a new life.  Instead he finds himself swept up in the dangerous politics of the realm when he is chosen to become Tarfel’s protector and loyal servant.  Forced to accompany the prince back to the very city they just fled, Chel has very little hope for their survival.  His fears prove justified when a force of disguised men attempt to kill them the night they arrive.  Their lives are only saved when a mysterious band of warriors arrive, killing their attackers and then promptly kidnapping them.

Awakening, Chel and Tarfel find themselves under the dubious protection of the Black Hawk Company, a small group of elite mercenaries who have been hired to escort Tarfel to a mysterious destination.  Despite their unconventional tactics and makeup, the Black Hawks are a dangerous and clever collection of killers, which proves useful when several bands of assassins and fanatics associated with the kingdoms corrupt and all powerful church; converge upon the group, determined to kill Tarfel.  Deciding that their kidnappers are the only group with their best interests in minds, Chel and Tarfel accompany the Black Hawks off into the unknown.  Their journey will take them through dangers, both seen and unseen, and lead them into the very heart of the kingdom as they try to remove the corruption from within.  But dark secrets lie in store for all of them at the end of their journey and no one will be prepared for the dangers and betrayals in front of them.

The Black Hawks is an exciting and captivating dark fantasy novel that I had an absolute blast reading.  This debut novel from David Wragg was originally released about this time last year and it serves as the first entry in his planned Articles of Faith series.  I didn’t get a chance to read The Black Hawks last year, but I have been eyeing this novel off for several months now as I loved how fun its synopsis sounded.  I finally got the opportunity to read this book a couple of weeks ago and I am extremely glad that I did, as The Black Hawks proved to be an impressive and entertaining read that I ended up powering through in relatively short order.  Wragg has come up with an excellent novel that combines a compelling and slick story with some memorable characters and a dark fantasy landscape loaded with perils and betrayals.  These, combined with the book’s many intense action sequences, fun humour and several dark scenes, help to create an addictive and amazing read that I quickly fell in love with.

Wragg utilises a fun, fast-paced and compelling narrative to serve as the centre of this great book.  The entirety of The Black Hawks’ plot is told from the perspective of Chel, who is constantly falling into the midst of some world-changing events.  The plot starts off quickly, with Chel quickly finding himself in the company of Prince Tarfel and from there into the middle of a number of conspiracies and plot aimed at eliminating or manipulating the prince.  This ensures that the reader is quickly enveloped in a complex and entertaining plot which sees the protagonists surrounded on all sides by betrayals, conflicting agendas, mortal perils and all manner of conspiracies.  It was really fun and captivating to see how the various storylines turned out, and the author comes up with a number of intriguing surprises and twists to ensure that the story stays quite interesting and fresh.  There was one very major twist revealed at the end of the novel that I was particularly impressed with.  Wragg sets this twist up perfectly, with a number of hints towards it scattered throughout the book.  While I was able predict some of what was going to happen in advance, I was pleasantly surprised with some of the other revelations that came to light, and this beautifully cultivated twist was one of the high spots of the book.  I was also expecting a completely different ending to the novel, perhaps something a tad more light-hearted, but I liked the direction that Wragg took it instead, especially as it means that I will be grabbing the eventual sequel to this novel as soon as possible to see what happens next.  Overall, The Black Hawks contains a really enjoyable and smartly written narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting through it.

One of the best parts of The Black Hawks is the enjoyable and distinctive characters that Wragg has come up with.  The book’s main protagonist is Vedren Chel, who serves as the story’s point-of-view character.  Chel starts off as a fairly typical fantasy character: a young, bored minor noble who finds himself suddenly involved with events outside of his understanding.  However, as the story progresses, he shows himself to be a much more complex character, mainly thanks to his dedication to Prince Tarfel, who he becomes sworn to.  Tarfel is a spectacularly naive and incompetent royal, who is usually completely unaware of the danger that he finds himself in, or the full scope of the conspiracies playing out around him.  Despite recognising how useless Tarfel is, Chel takes his oath seriously and does all he can to protect him, even though that essentially means he gets the crap kicked out of him every second chapter or so.  This dogged loyalty and determination to do the right thing makes him quite an appealing protagonist, and he proves to be a rather resourceful individual who starts to fit in with the members of the Black Hawk company who kidnap him.  This camaraderie with the Black Hawks, something that he has been missing for most of his life, results in several great scenes, especially as he finds himself conflicted in his loyalty to them and to Tarfel.  Overall, his character arc goes in some interesting directions, and it was great to see him grow as a person through the course of the book.  Tarfel also grows a little during the course of the novel, becoming slightly less boorish and a little more capable.  Some of the reveals at the end of the novel have some rather large impacts of Tarfel’s personality, as he completely re-evaluates his entire life, and it will be rather interesting to see what happens to him in the future novels.

While Chel and Tarfel are both great characters to anchor the main plot around, the most entertaining and memorable characters are easily the members of the titular Black Hawk company.  The Black Hawks are a small group of dangerous mercenaries who have banded together after failing to fit in with all the other companies.  Wragg has gone out of his way to create a distinctive band of mismatched rogues to fill the ranks of the Black Hawk company, and there are a number of fun characters introduced as a result.  These members include a grim and taciturn leader with a notorious hidden past seeking redemption, a shadowy archer who has had her tongue cut out, a beautiful but lethal swordswoman, the group’s dangerous and self-serving assassin who is probably going to betray everyone, and a philosophical giant.  While there are a few stereotypical fantasy roles in there, such as with the Black Hawk leader, this turned out to be a particularly fun group of characters.  My personal favourite was Lemon, a short, red-haired human woman with a crude personality, amazing sense of humour and a fascination with her arsenal of axes (essentially a classic fantasy dwarf character).  Lemon is a great entry in the book, especially as she serves as the story’s main comic relief and is generally the most likeable and entertaining character in the novel, especially when she regales the protagonist with her blunt and tasteless jokes.  I really liked the excellent group dynamic that Wragg came up with for the members of the Black Hawks, and while they work together and are friends, there is a real sense of how mismatched the group is as all of its members are more individualistic than a team player.  All of these characters are great and Wragg does an excellent job introducing each of them and ensuring that all of them get their moment to shine throughout the course of the story.  However, he makes sure to keep most of their backgrounds hidden from the protagonist and the reader, ensuring there is a certain amount of mystery and mystique around them.  While certain hints about their past are revealed, for the most part the reader is left in the dark about who these people are and what brought them to the Black Hawks.  I imagine that Wragg plans to reveal each of these character’s full backstories throughout the course of the series and now that I am somewhat invested in them, I look forward to finding out more about their pasts.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing characters, The Black Hawks features an excellent new dark fantasy world that serves as an awesome setting to this book.  Wragg’s novel features a somewhat desolate fantasy kingdom, ruined by years of constant warfare and ruled over by a corrupted and militant religious order that is desperately clinging to power.  This proved to be a really cool and enjoyable setting for the novel, and readers quickly become intrigued by the chaotic events occurring throughout the landscape.  While Wragg does drop the reader into this setting with any preamble and gets the story going rather quickly, the reader is never really lost about what is going on in this setting, and the author provides the relevant details about the fantasy world when necessary.  This proved to be an excellent overall setting, and I really liked seeing how all the politics and religious strife worked out.  This world also has a lot of potential for expansion, with a number of different nations and regions mentioned throughout the course of The Black Hawks’ story.  I imagine that the series will eventually visit many of these locations in the future, which should result in some interesting and enjoyable storylines, and I look forward to seeing how that turns out.

I ended up listening to The Black Hawks through its audiobook format, which runs for just over 12 hours and is narrated by Colin Mace.  This proved to be an excellent way to enjoy The Black Hawks, and I was able to power through it in only a few days as it was a really easy novel to listen to.  Thanks to Mace’s enjoyable narration, readers will be able to fly through this exciting and fast-paced story without losing focus for a second.  Mace also does a number of excellent voices for the various characters in the novels, capturing the diverse personalities and over-the-top characters really well.  As a result, I felt that this format was an awesome way to enjoy The Black Hawks and the audiobook comes highly recommended.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg was a cool and impressive dark fantasy adventure that I am really glad I checked out.  Thanks to his captivating and action-packed story, distinctive characters and dark fantasy setting, Wragg knocked his debut out of the park, creating an awesome overall read.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic book and I am looking forward to seeing how the story continues in the second Articles of Faith novel.

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