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Tsar: Waking the Russian bear with 007 flair

The Bond movies have almost always been smash hits at the box office and many fans know 007 was based on a double agent who hung out in Portugal during World War II, but I’m pretty sure Alex Hawke is a completely fictitious character from the mind of Ted Bell. Hawke is the playboy super agent for the 21st century with a little late 90’s metrosexual emotional bull tossed in.

Now don’t get me wrong. He’s a man’s man shooting around Bermuda on a vintage racing bike at speeds well beyond those recommended for safe travel after far too many hi-balls of Gosling’s Black Seal rum. Why do I know the brand name? One, because I like it myself, and B because Bell makes a Herculean effort to throw it in every chance he gets. The guy must have a deal with the rum runners that rivals Tiger’s Nike deal. But the thing is, when it comes to women Hawke does not take the Sean Connery slap the girl around approach. He’s all weepy. Though to be fair, his lovers tend to leave him in sudden and tragic ways, which I imagine can be traumatic after a while. I just wish we could have a super spy somewhere between the chauvinist and the metrosexual.

At any rate, if you’ve read any of the Hawke books, there are a total of six now, you’ll find the fifth book Tsar to be a bit different. Most of the action in the beginning of the novel does not follow Hawke, but instead centers around his good friend and private contractor for the CIA, Stokes, and the contract killer whose boss is a bit of an enigma, Paddy, as in all-beef. As far as villainous sidekicks go, he’s no Jaws or Oddjob. He’s much more of a Red Grant. The kind of guy who is very good at killing people and takes sick pleasure from it. Sick pleasure that spreads into the most graphic scene I can recall in a Hawke novel. The series features plenty of sex scenes, I mean Hawke is a playboy, but this is the first scene in which it was not between two consensual adults and I was not impressed.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I can withstand a great deal more violence involving death and explosions and what not than I can violence that is restricted to the bedroom. I can’t really say why, it just offends me much more easily.

The rest of Tsar contains a great deal more of the exciting action and intrigue I seek in these books. Bell is very good at presenting threats to life, liberty, and happiness that seem highly plausible in our current world climate and, call me a paranoid post Cold War nut if you must, but seeing Russia once again rise up to resume its intimidation and bullying  does not feel in any way far-fetched. I mean, they elected a former KGB agent president. Would you want a CIA operative in the White House? I’m glad they’re there to do what they do best, but I don’t thing running a peaceful, free nation falls into that category. Oddly enough the threat is not from Communism, but instead a business tycoon rises to the position of, ready for it? you had to have seen it coming, Tsar. That’s right. Bell’s Russia wants to throw out 90 some years of history and return to a Tsar regime.

Of course the guy turns out to be a few too many vodkas off his game to rule with any kind of sanity, so in comes Lord Hawke and his plucky, easy come, easy go attitude to save the day. But wait. Who is this illusive third man who seems to be pulling the strings behind the curtain of Oz?

Hawke’s love interest this time around is not a particularly strong part of the novel. She doesn’t seem to know her role in the novel and by the time the gritty details of her life are revealed they seem so out-of-place and confusing that they don’t have time to sink in. Especially when the timing is at the very climax of the action. Her big reveal is trampled on by the drama playing out between Hawke and the baddie and it’s over so quickly the information can’t be fully absorbed before we’re back in Bermuda and the credits are rolling. And Mr. Weepy-Weepy Sad-Sad is back to thumbing is way down the road to his next adventure. Which, by the, came out this month.

These issues are a nuisance but they do little to detract from the overall novel. Bell always puts together an exciting and well executed, not to mention at times over the top (just wait until you see how he kills the bad guy), thriller that takes you from the height of cigar smoking snifter drinking luxury to the depths of a radioactive prison and back again. It’s got everything including Q-esque inventions, which are usually not sported by the Brit Lord Hawke, and in case you hadn’t noticed, exotic locales. Oh, and one of the sweet toys is a giant zeppelin! So why hasn’t this series made the leap to the big screen? After all, Bond isn’t coming back any time soon. I’m still bitter about Clive Owen being passed over in favor of Daniel Craig anyway. Who’s ever heard of a blond Bond? Come to think, I wonder how Owen would do as Hawke?

In the mean time I’m very much looking forward to Warlord.

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