Verdict: This years-long, transcontinental game of cat-and-mouse is an explosive page-turner which owes its momentum to its two well-drawn opponents and a conflict that goes beyond good-vs.-evil.
In THE FORMER ASSASSIN, Nikki Stern gives her sympathetic hitwoman a heart as well as a worthy opponent. Protagonist and Army veteran Susan Foster takes no pleasure in pain or death. Yet after a well-meant but ill-fated retaliation on behalf of a friend, she is unwillingly contracted as the personal assassin for ruthless kingpin Victor Kemp… for decades. When she decides it’s finally time to retire from taking out Kemp’s enemies, she becomes one. His relentless pursuit of revenge and her equally unswerving determination to protect her family result in a years-long, transcontinental game of cat-and-mouse with narrow escapes and unimaginable losses on both sides.
Stern has a knack for making locales come alive: the crush of a Bombay market, the glamor of high society London, the incongruity of the quiet Welsh fishing village near where the explosive opening sequence takes place. Her attention to these backdrops subtly underscores her protagonist’s longing for a life less murderous: though she does not shy away from planned and unplanned kills, traumatic memories, and troubling doubts, the narrative lingers yearningly over the everyday pleasures of Susan dressing for dinner, flirting with her husband, or making nice with her son’s fiancée.
Susan is a passionately devoted wife and loving mother–indeed, as we learn early on, she is so protective of her family that she pretend to mourn their deaths to hide their wherabouts from her vindictive employer. Yet, her attempt to extricate herself from the underworld draws its suspense and interest in part from her criminal abilities and expertise: she is more than a match for her nemesis, and the risky schemes and calculated losses she undertakes rival those of her former employer. For his part, Victor Kemp is a villain with layers: he is not burdened with the sexual deviance and mindless sadism that less skillful writers use as shorthand for evil. Kemp is cold, cruel, and calculating, but he is also a criminal with a code–some illicit activities cross the line–and he nurtures rich relationships with his mistress and her first-born son.
In a world full of Bournes and Bonds, there are only so many truly surprising twists a reluctant assassin story can take–but by fueling these opponent’s motives as well as momentum, THE FORMER ASSASSIN hits its mark.
~Sara Davis for IndieReader