Lex Talionis is the final book in Peter Nealen’s American Praetorians series. I had incredibly mixed feelings about it, some of the most conflicted I’ve felt about any book. I appreciate what Nealen was trying to do, but I think he aimed a little too high.
Who and What
The Praetorians are back on American territory as they are forced to flee their home base and struggle to deal with the uncontrollable tides unleashed by feuding conspiracies. It’s tricky because the book has a whiplash-y zig-zagging amount of tone.
It’s trying to be a pessimistic social commentary and a slam-bang thriller at the same time. As a result, it suffers from a problem that I typically associate more with video games than actual books-a considerable disconnect between story and action.
I like, having suffered through too many “apocalypse as wish fulfillment” stories, that Nealen shows how brutal and un-wish-fulfilly something like it would realistically be. But then come the stock cheap thriller characters and over-the-top action. I like political commentary that tries to be more sincere and does succeed in hitting a few right notes-but then comes the exaggerated apocalypse. It just wobbles a lot more than all of Nealen’s other work I’ve read.
There’s also some other, smaller issues. While the fast pace makes for a good thriller, there’s a little too much place-hopping and samey action. There are a lot of character deaths, but they felt more like losing XCOM units [little but names] than Fire Emblem ones [developed characters] . As the series finale, it has to tie up its loose ends, and does so too quickly.
DEEP HISTORY OF TEM
This takes the first-person viewpoint perspective to its absolute limit. It’s very easy (IMO) to see why Nealen switched to third person in Brannigan’s Blackhearts. There’s a lot of infodumps to move thanks to the intricate plot, and having to tell it in a first-person book is rather-iffy.
Here’s where I’m the most conflicted. On one hand, the super-conspiracy (by far the biggest zombie sorceress part) is handled as well as it could be. It’s not in full control and stopping it doesn’t stop the underlying national problem.
On the other, it’s still a super-conspiracy that can deploy armies of target goons that the heroes take out en masse, and one that ultimately sabotages the book’s own political message by taking it from a “somewhat exaggerated for the sake of drama and social commentary” that would be ideal for such talk to a cartoon gorefest.
It’s like trying to mishmash The Wire (declining human institutions) and the later levels of Payday 2 (action against conspiracy-led supermercs). Nowhere is this more apparent than the zombie-sorceress-licious ending, which manages to be both too bleak and too goofily contrived at the same time.
It’s a Peter Nealen book, so the action is good. Unfortunately, it’s slightly worse than his other books. Mostly, this is because all the rest of the baggage takes it down. The action prose isn’t any better or worse than Nealen’s other books.
Normally, I’ve found, the dissonance between story and action is most notable in video games and has to do with the player’s freedom. IE, the main character is reluctant to resort to violence in-story but in-game you can nonchalantly mow down dozens of enemies.
Here, the setting argues for “low-end struggle for survival” but the action is country-hopping, truck-exploding, stronghold-storming, convoy-destroying, helicopter-gunning boom.
The Only Score That Really Matters
This is definitely a book where the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.
The “careful what you wish for” apocalypse is brave and noteworthy, but it takes the edge off the political commentary.
The political commentary is more sincere and highbrow than a lot of thrillers, but it drives the plot in a way that scrambles the action.
The action is Nealen’s usual “gritty but high-powered”, but it jars the political commentary as well.
In spite of these, I can’t feel bad about this. An author should never be discouraged to go on a different path and try something else out. The action is still quite serviceable, and the entire American Praetorians series is something of a fresh writer seeing what worked. The Wayne Gretzky-attributed quote of “you miss all the shots you don’t take” applies here. If it fell short, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and as a new writer myself, I can sympathize.