Tenth Man Down by Chris Ryan – review

Tenth Man Down by Chris Ryan (book cover)

Geordie Sharpe and his SAS team are sent to Africa to train government forces in the war torn nation of Kamanga. After an accident leaves a young boy dead, the local witch doctor makes a chilling pronouncement. Unless they leave now, ten white men or women will die.

Geordie dismisses the witch doctor’s prophecy; they’ve got a job to do. While they’re only supposed to be there as advisors, when the Alpha Commando unit are sent forward to capture a rebel controlled diamond mine, the SAS team are concerned they’re not ready and go along to keep an eye on things. There they find the rebel forces are bolstered by white mercenaries.

Not long after the government forces takes control at the mine, things take a turn for the crazy. Suddenly a target to the very men they were training, Geordie and his team make a run for it. While trying to stay alive and dodging the rebels, Geordie has to figure out what the hell is going on and why their allies suddenly turned against them.

***

This story is gritty and frightening throughout. The bloodlust fuelled actions of the Kamangan fighters and their supporters, on both sides, are truly savage. It’s hard to imagine people stooping to such deranged violence, but Ryan describes things in such a matter of fact way, you get the impression some of it is drawn from experience.

The suffering of Geordie’s friend Whinger after he’s badly burned in an explosion was particularly hard to read for someone who recently suffered a bad burn. I could truly imagine the agony and it made my stomach churn.

What this book is not is a clash between SAS soldiers and ex US Navy SEALs as the tagline and blurb promises. Indeed, the only character identified in the book as a former SEAL actually helps Geordie!

I found this irritating.

Let’s face it, I’d been promised SAS vs SEALs and the book never delivered, so I felt cheated. But there was more to it than that.

The expectation created by the blurb influenced the way I read the story. Because I’d been lead to believe that this SAS-SEAL clash was going to be a major part of the story, I was constantly waiting for it to happen. As I read the book I was trying to figure out when and how it would be revealed, and what the implications would be to the story when it did.

I felt like the tag line and blurb were calculated lies to trick readers into picking it up. While I understand the need for compelling blurb on a book, I don’t believe in false advertising like this. Not least because it disrespects the book’s actual content, which is well worthy of readers.

One part of the book I found puzzling was the bookend scenes which took place in the UK. The opening scene features Geordie on a picnic with his son, Tim, and supposedly gives context for Geordie telling the story, but there’s no way the story you then read is something even the most incompetent of parents would tell their kids. Indeed, at the end, Ryan even has Geordie reflect that he didn’t tell his son the specific details that were in the book. So why set it up as if that’s who he is addressing?

The opening scene does provide a view of Geordie that makes him seem human and normal and shows the backstory of his family life. And the closing scene allows Ryan to wrap up the open ends of the story as a series of questions which Tim asks about the story he heard. But I can’t help feel that the story would have started more powerfully around the campfire in Africa which starts chapter 2.

The plot of this book is… messy… in a good way. Not only are there stumbling blocks on the path of the pursuit of goals, like in any good story, but often the goals themselves shift unexpectedly. On occasions the characters achieve things which then turn out to be completely pointless or counterproductive, which is much more like real life. At the end of the book, Geordie’s son Tim asks if the mission was a failure and that’s exactly the question the reader is left thinking, partially because it’s hard to define what success would have looked like. This gave the book a strong sense of realism.

Tenth Man Down is a gritty, intense action-adventure that hints at the bloody truth of war and greed. This was the first Chris Ryan book I’ve read and on the basis of this I will be seeking out more.

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