Publisher: Sphere/Audible (Audiobook – 21 February 2023)
Series: Gray Man – Book 12
Length: 16 hours and 37 minutes
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The epic and captivating Gray Man series by legendary thriller author Mark Greaney returns with another exciting spy thriller entry, Burner, which thrusts the protagonists into the middle of some major real-world events.
Nothing starts off the thriller field of 2023 quite like the latest Gray Man novel from leading author Mark Greaney. Greaney is a very impressive author who has been killing it throughout the genre for years. Not only has he produced some cool standalone books, such as last year’s exciting action romp Armored, or the cool military thriller he co-wrote with Hunter Rawlings IV, Red Metal (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), but he has also written the exceptional Gray Man spy thriller books. Following legendary assassin Court Gentry, better known as the Gray Man, as he gets involved in several deadly situations, the Gray Man books are one of the leading spy thriller series and I have deeply enjoyed the epic and powerful adventures that Greaney has so far released. I personally have had an exceptional time with several of the Gray Man books, including Greaney’s debut novel, The Gray Man (which got a film adaptation last year), as well as the later entries such as Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020), Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021) and Sierra Six (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2022). His latest release is the outstanding Burner, which was one of my most anticipated novels of 2023. The 12th book in the Gray Man series, Burner was a particularly intense read with a fantastic story behind it.
Alex Velesky is a Ukrainian expat living in Switzerland, whose comfy life as a notorious mover of immoral money has been hollow ever since the death of his family back in Ukraine at the start of the invasion. Going through the motions, Velesky is suddenly given an opportunity to strike back at Russia when a disenfranchised Russian intelligence agent provides him with a trove of secret financial data. This data, when combined with information from his own bank, reveals all the Russian bribes paid out to the West, and could damage not only Russia’s foreign intelligence apparatus but also the delicate negotiations to re-open the Russian economy to the wider world.
Immediately targeted by Russians determined to kill him and reclaim the data before it can leak out, Velesky finds himself hunted throughout Switzerland. His only chance of survival seems to lie in rogue intelligence officer Zoya Zakharova, a woman hunted by her former employers in both Russia and the CIA, who is determined to get him and his information to New York, where it can be deciphered and released. But Velesky and Zoya soon find themselves being stalked by an elite unit of Russian military operators who have no qualms about killing anyone in their way.
However, the Russians aren’t the only people interested in the data, as the CIA wants to claim it for themselves. Determined to keep their interest in it quiet, the CIA reach out to Court Gentry, the Gray Man, to capture Velesky before the Russians do. However, Court is unaware of the full significance of the data he is reclaiming, and that he will have to compete against the love of his life, Zoya. Soon caught between the competing interests of the CIA and Russian intelligence, Court and Zoya decide to work together to keep Velesky alive. But with the dangerous data revealing dark dealings in the highest levels of government, can even these two legendary spies survive?
Wow, Greaney really can’t miss when it comes to the Gray Man books. Burner was another exceptional novel that had me hooked from the very beginning all the way to the final, devastating encounter. The blend of exceptionally written action scenes, spy thriller elements, complex characters and the utilisation of contemporary issues makes Burner really stand out, even alongside the other epic Gray Man books. This was another easy five-star rating from me as Greaney once again shows why he is currently leading the spy thriller genre.
Burner’s story is a pretty impressive and intense thrill ride that takes the reader across multiple continents in a blaze of glory and excitement. The book starts whilst the Russian invasion of Ukraine is ongoing and introduces the reader to interesting new character, Alex Velesky, who receives information about all of Russia’s illegal financial transactions from a disaffected Russian operative. If he can take this information, as well as data stolen from his bank, to a certain forensic accountant in New York, he will be able to disrupt Russia’s international intelligence efforts while also weakening their position against Ukraine. However, he soon finds a deadly Russian kill team on his tail, and is only saved by reluctant operative Zoya Zakharova, who eventually believes his story and attempts to get him to New York. However, the Russians and the CIA both want the data, and this drags in Court Gentry. On the run from the CIA and unsatisfied with his current job sinking Russian mega-yachts, Court is given a chance to get back into the agency’s good books by helping them recover the data. This sees him engage in a massive fight in Caribbean, before flying to Europe to find and capture Velesky and begin searching for him and the Russians. This results in a brilliant collection of scenes as the various sides engage in elaborate tradecraft to try and outsmart the others, resulting in a particularly epic extended sequence on a train. The resulting carnage and revelations make for some exceedingly gripping content and sets the final third of the book up extremely well. I protagonists are forced into a series of deadly battles on a tight timeline to achieve their goals. There are surprises, shocking deaths, elaborate fights and the resolution of several character arcs, all of which wraps up with a particularly epic, split-scene sequence that ends everything on a high note. I was engrossed in this exceptional narrative the entire way through, and it will be very interesting to see where Greaney takes this series next.
Greaney brings all his impressive writing skills to the table with Burner, and his ability to set a dramatic and powerful scene honestly turns the already outstanding narrative into something truly special. While I did find a few pieces of dialogue to be a bit weak and robotic, and Greaney did decide to fit in the annoying trope that two women working together must be bitchy to each other, this was mostly a very strongly written spy thriller book. Like all the previous Gray Man books, Burner has an outstanding pacing to it that quickly draws the readers in and ensures that they stick around for the entire ride. The action scenes are brutal and have a great veneer of realism that ensures that you can easily imagine every punch, shot or stab. The focus on tradecraft is a particularly fascinating element to the entire story, and you must love the multiple scenes that show the characters utilising their training to outmanoeuvre their opponents. Greaney also brings in the perfect blend of intense action focused scenes and story building, real-world issues, and character moments throughout the course of Burner and there honestly wasn’t a single moment that I wasn’t hooked on everything that was going on. Burner also proves to be a rather interesting and significant entry in the wider Gray Man series, which long-running fans are going to appreciate. While Burner can easily be read as a standalone novel thanks to the author’s concise and effective description of prior events, this book does continue several interesting storylines from the previous books, including Court’s fugitive status, his relationship with Zoya, and the examination of both main characters’ places in the world. Several recurring characters from the series also make their return here, including some entertaining antagonists, and I loved how Greaney worked them into the plot. I had a lot of fun seeing some of these call-backs to previous stories and plotlines, and Greaney leaves this book in an interesting place for the future.
I really need to mention Greaney’s exceptional use of multiple character perspectives throughout Burner. Greaney casts a very wide net when it comes to the perspectives being followed and while primary characters, such as Court Gentry and Zoya Zakharova, do get a lot more focus, you also see a lot of events occurring through the eyes of other characters, including several antagonists. This gives the reader a much more expansive narrative that not only lets you understand the motivations of every significant character but also allows you to see how the antagonists are responding to the actions of the protagonists, which adds intensity to the plot. However, the best advantage is the way that Greaney utilises these perspectives to make some of his biggest sequences really pop. In these key sequences, the point of view constantly moves around the various characters as the story unfolds and this helps to produce a particularly intricate and powerful viewpoint of how events are going down. This is particularly evident in the book’s best extended sequence where multiple point-of-view characters, including Court, Zoya, Alex, the antagonistic Russian hit team, a lone CIA agent and more find themselves converging on a train to Switzerland. As the scene continues, Greaney keeps quickly moving the point-of-view around from one of the characters to the next, including a couple of minor characters who are mostly there as witnesses. Watching every character’s reactions, moves and countermoves really enhances the power of the scene as Greaney first uses it to build up tension before the inevitable firefight begins, and then switches it up to ensure that the resulting battle is even more epic as you see every shot both sides make. Greaney uses this excellent balance of perspectives through several of Burner’s key scenes, including the big finale, and each sequence comes off much better as a result. I cannot emphasise how effectively Greaney utilised this throughout Burner, and it was a major highlight for me.
One of the most distinctive things about Burner was the excellent and memorable use of contemporary events to enhance the already enjoyable spy thriller narrative. Greaney has never shied away from referring to current conflicts, politics and events, and in Burner he goes for the most infamous current conflict in a big way by strongly featuring the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Greaney pulls no punches when describing the conflict and he artfully and powerfully paints the entire invasion as the act of barbarism and greed that it is. While no political leaders are names, multiple Ukrainian and Russian characters are featured throughout the plot and through them Greaney examines multiple sides of the conflict, ensuring that readers are fully aware of what is happening, who is responsible, and just how bad things are. The Russian government are shown to be extremely corrupt, starting the war and then poorly preparing their own troops, all in the name of obtaining more money for the Russian elites to exploit. This focus on corrupt money is a major part of the plot as the characters spend the entire book trying to identify funds being syphoned out of Russia to the West, either to escape sanctions or to be used for bribes or operation money by Russian intelligence. The discussion about bribes to influential westerners is pretty interesting, especially as it seems to be a dig at certain politicians and news reporters, and it ended up being a very fascinating plot focus. While it might seem a little insensitive to use a current conflict in a thriller novel, I personally felt that this was a master touch by Greaney. Having the book focused on something that is such a big part of current world events ensured that I was even more invested in the story while rooting for the protagonists to succeed. I really must compliment Greaney for using his book to shine a light on this conflict, and I feel that his warnings about how the war could end are very important.
I also need to highlight the great characters contained within Burner as Greaney brings back several of his best recurring protagonists, while also introducing some cool new figures. This includes series protagonist Court Gentry, who has another outstanding adventure in Burner. Court is his usual fun and effective self in this latest book, and it was great to see him utilise his skills and over-the-top abilities to achieve the mission. Despite this, there isn’t an awful lot of character development around Court in this one, except for updating his status with the CIA. Instead, most of the character development in this book was reserved for major recurring character and Court’s love interest, Zoya Zakharova. Zoya last appeared in the 10th book, Relentless, which saw Court abandon her to keep her alive after he became wanted by the CIA again. This had a major impact on Zoya’s psyche due to her previous abandonment issues and this, combined with the guilt she feels for being a former Russian spy, sends her into a massive spiral, and at the start of Burner she is an alcoholic, cocaine addicted mess. A lot of her storyline deals with her attempts to move forward from her guilt, and she takes the mission with Alex Velesky to redeem herself. Greaney does an outstanding job of showcasing Zoya as a woman in crisis, and I felt that this was an interesting and realistic jump in her character arc, especially after everything she’s been through in the series. Naturally her life gets even more complicated once she is reunited with Court, which forces her to deal with some major feelings. Greaney smartly keeps these two characters apart for a substantial part of the book and they are unaware of each other’s presence even while working the same case. This means that when they finally do meet, the emotional pay-off is even more rewarding, and there are some great sequences with them as the story continues. This ended up being a very substantial story for both characters and it was great to finally get some closure on the open relationship threads.
Aside from Court and Zoya, most of the other major characters are new additions to the Gray Man series, and Greaney does an outstanding job of building these characters up quickly during their initial appearances in Burner. The most prominent of these is Alex Velesky, a Ukrainian banker working in Switzerland who ends up with the incriminating Russian data and is motivated to expose it after the death of his family. Greaney frames an exceptionally good redemption arc around Alex in Burner as the character, who is feeling guilty for the years he’s spent illegally moving Russian money, attempts to finally reveal all the crimes he’s been apart of. Alex’s entire arc is masterfully written by Greaney, and he proves to be an outstanding part of this book. The other major new character was Angela Lacey, a rookie CIA operative who is sent to work with Court. Shown to be a bit naïve, yet highly capable, Angela proves to be an interesting inclusion to Court’s mission, and he ends up become a bit of a mentor to her. Angela is forced to grow up a lot in this book, especially when manipulated by her superiors, and it looks like Greaney has some interesting plans for her in the future. Other great characters include a deadly new Russian assassin Luka Rudenko, slippery recurring antagonist Sebastian Drexler, and even Court’s old CIA handler Suzanne Brewer, who is up to her old diabolical tricks. All these impressive characters add a lot to the plot of Burner, especially as Greaney takes the time to explore all their motivations and deeper secrets, and their inclusion results in some amazing sequences and confrontations.
While I did receive a paperback copy of Burner, I ended up listening to this awesome book on audiobook, mainly because I have had some great experiences with the Gray Man audiobooks in the past. The Burner audiobook ended up being another excellent production that I managed to knock off quickly, even with a run time of over 16 and a half hours. In my opinion, this audiobook format greatly enhanced the already epic story contained within Burner in several notable ways. Not only does the action sequences really pop as you have them read out to you, by the format also works well to enhance the tension of some of the extended sequences involving multiple characters. Just listening to all the players making their moves at the same time really drags you into the intense and explosive scenes and I was riveted through the scene on the train, or the final massive battle. It also helped that Burner once again featured the exceptional vocal talents of Jay Snyder, who has lent his voice to all the previous Gray Man audiobooks. Snyder, who was already one of my favourite audiobook narrators, has an outstanding voice that really fits the spy thriller genre. His performances always capture the intensity, chaos, and destruction of any scene he narrates, while at the same time he manages to move the book along at a quick pace that really keeps the audience drawn in. Snyder also has an excellent and fitting range of voices that he deploys throughout the audiobook, and I loved hearing the voices he assigns to some of the returning favourites. His tone for Court Gentry fits perfectly, and all the other major player get some great voices with well performed accents. All this ensures that the audiobook is an incredible way to enjoy the latest Gray Man novel and I cannot recommend the Burner audiobook enough.
I could go on more about Burner (trust me, I really could), but I think it is fair to say that I deeply enjoyed this latest Gray Man novel from Mark Greaney. Greaney has been on a roll with his last few Gray Man books, and I honestly think that Burner is one of the better novels he has released recently. The impactful story, great characters, compelling content and impressive writing ensured that I was enthralled throughout the entirety of Burner, and I honestly couldn’t put it down at times, especially during some of the big action sequences. This was such an epic book, and I can already guarantee Burner is going to end up as one of my top books and audiobooks of 2023. Highly recommended!