There’s precisely one thing I don’t like about reading–plowing through a book so quickly you lose the chance to savour it. Now, if it’s a good book, I don’t mind too much, but it’s always a tad disappointing when you get to the end and realize you swallowed it whole. You can never go back and chew it slowly, wondering what the next mouthful will bring.
Although I’m a fast reader, it’s not often that I finish a book in one or two sittings. But with Ryan Casey, it’s becoming something of a habit. I devoured his newest novel, Killing Freedom, reading most of it while waiting for my plane at the airport; his trademark tension and the breakneck pace of the book was too much for my palate to resist–down the hatch!
In all seriousness, Killing Freedom is yet another success for Casey. I’m quite fond of him as a writer–there’s a youthful exuberance behind his words that belies his passion for the art, but it’s tempered with a very mature voice. He feels like a seasoned author, despite releasing his first novel only last year. And while this newest offering is–in my opinion–not quite as well honed as What We Saw, it’s by no means the Curse of the Second Book. It’s an excellent offering, and well worth the $3.98 price tag.
Ostensibly, the book is about a hired killer who’s having a change of heart–but really, it’s the characterization of Jared that drives it. He’s in a tough spot: he kills people for a living but yearns to be free. As several characters in the book point out, it’s not the kind of job you just walk away from. But he feels he owes it to himself (and his sister) to at least try. This kind of character driven plot can be challenging to do well because you need to be sure your character is strong, well developed, and easy to sympathize with. This is doubly difficult if your character is an anti-hero like Jared.
But Casey pulls it off. He does a great job of making the reader care about Jared’s predicament, despite the evil things he does. There’s another hitman in the book, Frank, that acts as a nice character foil–he does the same job as Jared, but takes perverse pleasure in it. Best of all, Jared’s better at the job. The first scene they share is a great moment in the book because it demonstrates what Jared could have been, but for the grace of God, if you will. It’s that subtle difference that makes Jared believable, and makes the book work.
As I read the book, I noticed a very quick change in Jared–no spoilers, but he’s sent to kill a family, and starts to doubt whether it’s the right choice. His early interactions with the family is the only thing that didn’t work well for me. Jared’s change of heart seems almost too quick–though looking back on his arc, I think that’s more because I was blowing through the book so quickly. Moreover, he seems a bit naive in his thinking that things can change, that this family will be the difference. He also seems to worry a lot about getting caught, making him seem unconfident in his own abilities. Of course, Jared needs this dilemma and second guessing to move his character along, and I don’t fault Casey for the way it’s written. It’s just that Jared seems to take a few things at face value which perhaps–as a seasoned killer and man or the world–he should be more cautious about.
Of course, there’s another way to look at it too: Jared’s simply so desperate to get out that he can’t see the forest for the trees. When all you can see is that one glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s easy to miss the dangers that lurk on the way there. This interpretation works better for the book, though in all honesty it’s only something that became apparent to me after I finished reading.
All of the “set up” for the character development takes place in the first third or so of the novel–then there’s an Incident, including the scene with Frank, and everything goes to…well, there’s trouble. This scene is very disturbing, but not because of the violence (which is there in spades). It’s due to that difference between Frank and Jared, and how they respond to violence against the innocent. It perfectly highlights why Jared needs to change–his call to action, as it were. It’s a riveting scene, all the more so because you get a sinking feeling that it won’t end well.
From here on, the book is a roller coaster of circumstance as Jared tries to keep ahead of his choices. I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying there are more failures than successes, because that’s what makes Jared’s journey so believable–he just can’t catch a break. This in turn informs the pace of the book, which gets more and more intense as it builds to a climax I almost saw coming, but desperately didn’t want to read. I won’t even touch on that scene for fear of ruining it for the reader–but suffice it to say a choice is made that upset me enough I had to put down the book and take a bit of a walk. And yet, Casey made exactly the right move–it’s the defining moment of Jared’s character, and justifies the entire story.
On that note, I should mention the book’s violence. It’s not gratuitous, which is admirable because it easily could have been a very bloody book. And while there is a good deal of violence, it never feels out of place, serving to further the plot as well it should. It;s the characters reactions to violence that make the impact here; the blood is secondary.
I haven’t touched much on the plot specifically because, to my mind, it doesn’t really matter. Of course it’s the plot that makes the story, but in the case of Killing Freedom, it’s the character that makes the book.
I’m going to use an odd analogy here, so bear with me: Star Trek is such a great series because, despite it being science fiction, the science part of it doesn’t really matter. You could take a good Star Trek episode and wash it clean of all mention of science and technology and space utopia, and it would still be a good story. The science fiction part is just a convention, a consequence of the genre, and while it certainly helps put those stories into context, they don’t rely on it.
In much the same way, Jared has hard choices to make, and he’s in a difficult situation, but that situation could be something different from hitman and the character would work just as well. What Casey has done here is create an Everyman, a universal figure we can relate to, even though his occupation is something we’d never have direct experience with. It’s not common that you find such a character in a book, and while the way he’s written isn’t perfect, it’s really damn good.