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.

Relentless by Mark Greaney

Relentless by Mark Greaney Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 16 February 2021)

Series: Gray Man – Book 10

Length: 15 hours and 39 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the leading authors of the spy thriller genre, Mark Greaney, returns with the tenth epic book in his long-running Gray Man series, Relentless, an impressive and captivating read.

Mark Greaney is talented author who has been absolutely killing it over the last 10+ years ever since his 2009 debut.  While he has written some other books, including seven contributions to Tom Clancy’s iconic Jack Ryan universe (three cowritten with Clancy, and four written after Clancy’s death) and the military thriller Red Metal (cowritten with Hunter Ripley Rawlings, and one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), Greaney is probably best known for his awesome Gray Man series.  Starting with The Gray Man in 2009, this series follows Court Gentry, a disavowed CIA operative turned assassin known as the Gray Man.  I am a major fan of this series, having read the last few entries, Mission Critical and One Minute Out (the latter was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020), and I have been looking forward to this book for a while (indeed it was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021).

Around the world, several top intelligence agents are disappearing, and CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley wants to know why.  When a former American agent who was believed to be dead resurfaces in Venezuela under the protection of the local secret police, Hanley has no choice but to send in his most dangerous asset, Court Gentry, the Gray Man.  As the Gray Man, Gentry is feared around the world as a lethal assassin and rogue operative, but his real role is as a deniable hitter for Hanley at the CIA.  Journeying down to Venezuela, Gentry makes contact with the former agent, who spins a tale of conspiracy and espionage in the heart of Europe before being brutally murdered by a heavily armed team of assassins.

Barely managing to escape with his life and convinced of a larger conspiracy at foot, Gentry convinces Hanley to send him to Berlin to uncover the truth.  At the same time, Gentry’s fellow CIA agent and lover, Zoya Zakharova, is infiltrating a private German intelligence firm with connections to the dead man in Venezuela.  As Zoya attempts to find out who is really running the organisation, she finds herself once again in the crosshairs of her former masters in Russian intelligence, who send their most lethal assassin to kill her.

As Gentry and Zoya fight for their life in Berlin, they start to understand the full breadth of the conspiracy they have found themselves amid.  Someone is playing a dangerous game at a global level and they are willing manipulate the American and European governments to further their goals.  Can Gentry and his allies get to the bottom of this conspiracy before it is too late or will a terrible attack lead America into an unwinnable war?

The hits keep on coming from Greaney, as Relentless was a fantastic and incredible novel that is one of the best books of 2021 so far.  I loved the impressive and complex story contained within Relentless with all its twists and turns, and I swiftly became enthralled by the well-written and intense narrative.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome novel is an intense and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to.  Set shortly after the events of One Minute Out, this multi-perspective narrative sends protagonist Court Gentry to South America on a dangerous mission that has connections to the main conspiracy.  After a not entirely unexpected destructive fire fight from a third party, Gentry heads to Europe where he seeks to back up his love interest, Zoya, who is undercover in Berlin following another connected lead.  At the same time, the narrative expands out to showcase other groups involved in the conspiracy, including a manipulative spy master, two separate teams of killers who are hunting different protagonists, and an Iranian sleeper agent, just to name a few.  All their various storylines and character arcs are extremely interesting and exciting, as the author has crafted together some compelling narratives for each of them.  Greaney throws in a lot of amazing surprises and twists throughout the novel, and while I was able to guess how a few things were going to turn out, I could not predict the amazing scale and complexity of the overarching conspiracy that the characters find themselves involved with.  There is a comprehensive and captivating focus on international espionage throughout Relentless which fits into the story perfectly, and I loved all the cool details that author included, including a recreation of a recent real-life espionage event of great significance.  All these storylines come together extremely well, ending with a massive and memorable conclusion that was a lot of fun, and I ended up loving every second of this cool story.  Greaney also sets up some intriguing storylines for future novels in the series and I am really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

In addition to Relentless’s epic story, I really enjoyed Greaney’s cool writing style, which complemented the narrative perfectly.  The novel can be easily enjoyed by people unfamiliar with the series, and I really appreciated the amazing amount of detail and excitement loaded into the book.  There a particular focus on trade craft with this latest novel, with some great explanations about the various spy techniques utilised by the various characters, and this pumped some real authenticity into the story.  I also really enjoyed all the incredible action sequences featured within this latest novel.  Greaney has always had a talent for writing explosive and powerful action scenes, and Relentless contains some impressive examples of this as the protagonists duke it out with a wide range of enemies across the world.  Every action scene is well-planned out, realistic and very intense, ensuring the reader is constantly on the edge of their seat.

I also absolutely loved the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives throughout the novel, which was a real highlight for me.  While there is an obvious focus on characters like Gentry and Zoya, nearly every other character, including many of the antagonists, have their side of the story shown.  I found this worked extremely well to tell a complex narrative, as the reader gets to see what everyone, from the mastermind of the conspiracy to members of the various kill teams hunting the protagonists, is doing and thinking.  Not only does this build up suspense, as you know in advance some of the dangers and threats coming towards the protagonists, but you also get to see the antagonists react to all of Gentry’s actions and watch them adjust accordingly.  This makes for a much richer and more impressive story, and it works particularly well in some of the combat sequences, as you get to see all the characters manoeuvring around the battlefield.  There are also some extremely awesome chapters where various characters are following each other throughout Berlin.  Watching several point-of-view characters engaging in surveillance and countersurveillance operations against each other, with some other interested parties thrown in for good measure, was very cool, and it ended up being one of the cleverest sequences in the novel.  I really loved how this awesome writing style enhanced the story and I think it worked really well.

As usual, Greaney comes up with an excellent selection of characters for Relentless, all of whom get explored in substantial detail throughout the book.  Most of Relentless’s focus is naturally on the series’ main protagonist, the titular Gray Man himself, Court Gentry.  Greaney continues to paint an interesting figure with Gentry, as a former official CIA operative who was forced to become an assassin with a conscience, before secretly re-joining the CIA in the Poison Apple program as a deniable asset.  Gentry has a great, action-packed story in Relentless, getting into all manner of dangerous situations, and I loved the cool ways he attempts to extricate himself from them, often by killing his opponents.  I also really liked how Greaney gave Gentry a significant handicap in this latest adventure, as he is suffering from a serious infection from a stab wound gained in One Minute Out.  This infection reduces his reaction speed and physical prowess throughout the book and forces him to seek continued medical care, all of which makes his mission even more dangerous and problematic, and which really raises the stakes for the entire book.  It was also great to see more of Zoya and Zack Hightower, the other two Poison Apple agents, both of whom were not featured that much in the previous novel.  Both these agents have some compelling and entertaining arcs in this book, and I always enjoy how well the former Russian knockout and the aging American special operator compliment Gentry as a team.  Interestingly, you also get to see a lot more of CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley, the man secretly running Gentry, as he even gets into the field for a particularly dangerous assignment.  Some big moments occur for Hanley in Relentless, and it will be interesting to find out what happens to him next.  I also quite enjoyed the wild Russian assassin, Maksim Akulov, a drunk lunatic with a death wish, who is assigned to kill Zoya, but eventually starts targeting Gentry, seeing him as the ultimate challenge.  All these amazing characters, and more, really added a lot to the story, and I look forward to seeing how the ones who survived are utilised in the future.

While I did receive a physical copy of Relentless, I ended up enjoying this book in its audiobook format instead.  I have had a lot of fun with Greaney’s audiobooks in the past and I generally find that the intense and epic action and espionage translates into this format extremely well.  Relentless was no exception, and I found myself really enjoying listening to all the cool sequences unfold and at times I almost felt like I was there witnessing it.  With a run time of 15 hours and 40 minutes, Relentless’s audiobook is pretty long and might take listeners a while to get through.  However, it is worth the time investment and you will find yourself quickly powering through it once you get caught up in the story (I personally listened to it for nearly five hours straight at one point).  This latest Gray Man audiobook also sees the return of Jay Snyder as narrator.  Snyder is an experienced and prolific audiobook narrator who has contributed his voice to a wide range of awesome audiobooks in the past, including all the previous entries in the series.  Snyder has a fantastic gruff voice that fits the tone of Relentless perfectly, and which he uses to great effect moving the story along and describing all the deadly action and chaos.  Snyder also produces some great voices for the various characters which I think encapsulate each person really well and proved to be very effective.  I was a little wary about a Minnesota accent that he had to do for one of the characters, but it grew on me as the book progressed and I think it was a decent attempt in the end.  All of this makes for an epic and enjoyable audiobook and this is definitely an amazing way to check Relentless out.

Relentless is another exceptional spy thriller from the always impressive Mark Greaney that comes very highly recommended.  The 10th entry in the always outstanding Gray Man series, Relentless contains another captivating and deeply exciting narrative, which, combined with Greaney’s impeccable writing and fun characters, makes for a truly excellent thriller.  I had such an awesome time reading Relentless, and this book is one of the best releases of 2021 so far.  I look forward to seeing how Greaney continues this series in the future, and I must really go back and check out some of the earlier Gray Man novels this year, especially as a movie adaption of The Gray Man is currently being made by the Russo brothers with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans set to star (I mean, talk about a movie with some real potential).

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