The hardest part about not believing in God isn’t knowing there’s no heaven.
It’s knowing there’s no hell.
The thing with human trafficking is, that it has been glamorized beyond recognition in contemporary romance it has started to sound like an appealing way to meet your one true pair. Such a horrible reality has been fluffed out by exceptionally attractive, kinky and ruthless alpha heroes with a heart of gold in fiction that it has started to become a selling point in books.
This is not that kind of book.
For readers who have see the film Taken, this is exactly that storyline except its the daughter who has to find her kidnapped father who turns out to be a CIA field agent. With the help of their former Mossad agent neighbour and a hacker friend, seventeen year-old prep school senior Gwendolyn Bloom discovers the truth about her father who just disappeared after a “meeting” in Paris. The secrets that he harbours sends her on an elaborate chase across Europe, opening her eyes to a world beyond the comforts of the Upper East Side that she loathes, changing her from a bullied introvert to a creature of infinite cruelty in order to save her family.
At its core, The Cruelty should be a five-star, favourite shelf book for me. It’s 4472 kindle pages, with an addictive, easy to latch on narrative dragging Gwendolyn in an impossibly adrenaline pumped, gruelling adventure with Mossad operatives in Paris, prostitutes in Berlin and the Czech Mafia in Prague. It takes you to their seedy underbellies, the world of desperate refugees and runaways. A culture and a civilization away from our own, shrouded in an atmosphere of abandon, hopelessness and decay.
This is the Paris of the Nigerians who wash the visitors’ coffee cups, the Paris of the Arabs who sell them little Mona Lisa magnets from blankets spread out on the curb by the Seine.
The pace is unrelenting and makes you sorry for that third caffeine cup you had this morning. It has Krav Maga taught by a bacon-eating Mossad agent. Achilles tendons get slashed. Balls get kicked numerous times. Somebody fires a rocket launcher somewhere in the story. I now know it takes two hours to wire transfer money from a Swiss Account, four hours from a bank in Seychelles or Cyprus. North Korea is apparently good in making two things: nukes and rat poison.
It’s that kind of an adventure.
And like any other spy thriller post-Cold War, this used some well-trodden twists, employed complex characters with unreliable motives and alliances that makes you question everything up to the very end. I love the kind of characters this managed to bring to the fore. The bad guys were believably evil but the personality given the foot soldiers brought a new complexity to the story. Everyone sounds like an extra in Jersey Shore! I love it! The Eurotrashiness of it all was fresh and convincing, adding texture to the already decrepit feel of the novel as a whole.
”The English phrase is ‘slumming it,’ not ‘slamming it,’” I say over the awful Czech rap blasting through the speakers.
“Fuck do you know? You’re Russian,” he says.
“Can I turn down the music?”
“That’s me. That’s my album. MC Vrah is my name. It means, like, gangster, assassin. Did you know I was a rapper?
He’s a human trafficker and a sentimental rapist by the way.
The story is told entirely from the POV of Gwendolyn who certainly lived through interesting days but, I found in the end, I had very little emotional investment to start with. Before the story kicked into Robert Ludlum territory, what I know of Gwendolyn is that she speaks five languages, her mom is dead, she likes jazz and she’s getting bullied by her rich classmates for being poor. Oh and she likes her red Doc Martens, because she’s a rebel that way. I had very little sympathy for her cause in finding her father because not much was established about their relationship. The sentimentality is often ephemeral, the emotional foundation of the chase shaky and vague. Such that this missed on capitalizing on certain scenes, failing to give me that scratchy feeling in my throat, that pinch in the feels.
This will also require some suspension of disbelief, some leniency in logic. Certain parts of the story were far too convenient for my tastes, clues were found a little too easily. The day before her father gets kidnapped, she meets a boy from school who just happens to be a hacker. A secret warehouse storage? Of course she’ll search the box where her father left the next clue, right before the authorities come in. She finds a torture chamber? Of course there’s a flashlight handy for her to explore its every corner.
Gwendolyn’s evolution from point A to point B was also a little uneven. A little bit of insta-bad-assery was at play: a three week program where you become as dangerous as an undercover Mossad agent? How much water do I need to add? It was a bit jarring to have that fantastical quality to it juxtaposed with the intense realism of where Gwendolyn finds herself in towards the end that it breaks a bit of the spell this has managed to put me under.
Not that you want the old Gwendolyn back but you have to ask:How did we get here?
The inability to choose your next read, rush hour traffic, that asshole customer service representative you just got off the phone with, that’s our reality. Though far from flawless, this book mirrors a reality so distant from that it’s easier to pretend its all fantasy. Where the trafficker will fall in love with the contraband and take her away from all that horror and into the beautiful sunset and have kinky, but love-filled sex in their HEAs.
”These girls are, you know, too young. I think about it and maybe they have family who miss ten. I think maybe that redhead wants to be a schoolteacher or something back in Petersburg, but now we make her a whore.”
“So it does anger you?” I ask, looking for something human in him.
“When I think about it, yes,” Emil smiles. “That’s why I don’t think about it.”
So do you want to read this book?
I lay out the accessories any good princess would take for an evening at a fancy-dress ball:
Dove-gray satin elbow-length gloves made in Paris.
Black beaded clutch made in Milan.
Brownish yellow-capsules of rat poison made in North Korea.
I dunno, you tell me.
ARC provided by JKS Communications thru Netgalley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. Quotes may not appear in the final edition.