by Adam Baker
320 pages, Thomas Dunne Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Did you miss me? Keen-eyed Booksquawkers might have noticed that I’ve been off-site for about a year now. Studying for a Masters degree has meant that I’ve spent the past 12 months buried in all manner of weighty tomes and academic journals. Now that’s finished, I can get back to the far more enjoyable business of reading trashy novels, writing daft stories and sitting around the house scratching myself.
Adam Baker’s “Juggernaut” is the perfect antidote to all the academic quagmire that I’ve been hauling myself through. Ostensibly a prequel to his first novel “Outpost” (which I haven’t read), “Juggernaut” works just fine as a stand-alone read and is possibly the most testosterone-fueled, balls-to-the-wall thrill-ride that I’ve ever encountered between the pages of a paperback book. The premise is achingly simple…Iraq, 2005, a group of mercenaries are duped by a shady government agency to travelling deep into the desert in search of buried treasure. The treasure actually turns out to be a freaky bio-weapon of unknown, possibly extraterrestrial, origin that turns anyone who comes into contact with it into a crazed, flesh-hungry, biomechanical über-zombie. The mercs have to blast their way out of the desert in a hail of bullets, explosions and bits of flesh. There’s nothing unpredictable in the plot. Everything happens much as it should… The crack team are picked off one-by-one, there’s a spot of double-crossing, the team gets stranded in the desert outpost and are outnumbered by the zombies, they learn more about the enemy and start to fight back, there’s a last-ditch battle, a noble sacrifice and a close escape for the surviving protagonists.
From a distance, “Juggernaut” seems like just another ultra-violent zombie novel that mainstream publishers are churning out in an attempt to keep surfing the cultural zeitgeist which reached its apex eight years ago with Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. The dialogue is a bit clunky and Baker often relies on his characters telling us what is going on in order to keep the plot moving. The characters are fairly two-dimensional: there’s a big-tough black guy, a big-tough Asian medic, a big-tough helicopter pilot with a chip on his shoulder. Most amusing was the big-tough South African mercenary called Voss who blows things up, chews tobacco and swears almost incessantly with an Afrikaans accent: “Fok jou.” Leading the team are Amanda and Lucy - a pair of smoking-hot gun-toting ladies whose lesbian relationship is so utterly unnecessary to the main storyline that it seems less like a gesture of political correctness and more like an act of perverted wish-fulfilment by a 14-year old boy… “What’s hotter than a chick with a gun? Two chicks with guns making out with one another!”
With a clichéd plot, cardboard cut-out characters and unconvincing dialogue, what was it about “Juggernaut” that kept me reading? I’ll tell you - Baker’s novel was so damn fun that I didn’t care about the flaws. The novel is brilliantly paced and moves like the titular unstoppable vehicle of mayhem and destruction. It’s a bit like getting on a roller-coaster - you’ve seen the twists and turns whilst standing in the queue - you know what is going to happen when you strap yourself in. The fun doesn’t transpire from discovering anything new, it comes from the simple enjoyment of being on the ride. Once you are strapped in and the ride has started, there’s no getting off. You don’t say: “Hold on, I’ve been on another roller-coaster very similar to this one.” No, you hold on tight and enjoy it for what it is.
Baker’s book is so breathlessly paced that I am hard-pushed to think of any moments when I felt the story was dragging. We are whipped from one explosive set-piece to another, not given the time to consider where we might have seen something like that before. The relentless action is exhilarating, but never exhausting. Baker’s clipped, direct prose vividly captures every whizzing bullet, every spent shell that drops to the ground, and every earth-shuddering explosion. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, writing convincing action is a skill that many highly-regarded mainstream authors lack. Adam Baker appears to possess this skill in abundance and his ability to write thrilling action sequences that extend not just over a number of pages but over a series of chapters is to be commended.
With a keen eye for detail, Baker is able to paint a believable picture of mercenary life in Iraq. It’s dirty, dangerous work carried out by dirty, dangerous people. Real-world technology is name-dropped throughout and serves to ground the novel in reality. When the more fantastic elements of the plot start to kick in, there’s no jarring halt as we move from military fiction to a science-fiction-horror. It’s all part of the ride and it works very well.
“Juggernaut” isn’t going to win any prizes for originality but readers looking for a fast-paced, bombastic action-adventure will find much to enjoy within its pages. It is loud, brash and about as subtle as a housebrick through your front window. However, this doesn’t stop it being a highly entertaining read. We often overlook the fun-factor when critiquing novels and “Juggernaut” is a hell of a lot of fun.
Hereward L.M. Proops