By Mark Lee Greenblatt
The Hunters, the sixth novel from retired Air National Guard senior master sergeant Tom Young, is a compelling read with well-paced writing and interesting plot developments. Young’s latest is not a typical shoot-’em-up military book – to the contrary, it takes readers on a humanitarian mission in Somalia, which of course goes awry, and the protagonists are forced to fight for their survival. And, to add some unique texture, half of the book is told through the eyes of a young terrorist gunman. Hardly a run-o’-the-mill book.
For starters, Young has a knack for good pacing. The action scenes are set off nicely against lower-intensity moments, and the ebbs and flows between them are seamless and believable. Even in the slower moments, Young engages readers with interesting non-combat issues. For example, the story centers around Young’s recurring main character, Michael Parson, an Air Force pilot who takes personal leave to fly an old DC-3 cargo plane laden with humanitarian supplies into war-torn areas in the Horn of Africa. Serious problems unfold (details will be kept to a minimum to avoid spoiling the plot), and during a down-time in the action, Young shows how Parson struggles with handling quasi-military threats when he is on a humanitarian mission in his civilian capacity:
Now [Parson] found himself in a weird gray area between the civilian and military worlds. Normal rules of engagement didn’t necessarily apply. Parson had no standards to rely on except his own moral compass…. He just hoped he plotted the right course, because a moral compass, just like the compass on an airplane, was not always easy to read. Back in the days of open cockpits, silk scarves, and leather helmets, pilots learned to anticipate a compass’s natural magnetic error: lead to the south, lag to the north. Errors in your moral compass were harder to catch.
Young peppers these reflective moments throughout the book, which helps separate The Hunters from a typical action-oriented thriller.
Two situations in The Hunters show Young at his best. First, as one might expect, given the author and main character’s experience as pilots, flying is a recurring theme throughout the book. And Young delivers.
His descriptions of the cockpit action make readers feel as if they are sitting there next to Parson as he flicks the switches, makes radio calls, confers with his copilot, and yanks on the elderly plane’s throttle to get out of danger. He paints vivid descriptions of the cockpit environment, giving readers a tactile sense of the surroundings. There are a couple of lines that seemed like Young was giving a shout-out to his fellow aviators, with a dash of jargon like references to differential braking or the cannon plug of a speed-sensitive switch. But, even if the reader doesn’t know the danger of a failed reverse-current relay, Young conveys the overall scene so deftly that lay-readers can still appreciate the moment, even if they don’t quite appreciate all of the nuance. In fact, in some ways, the technical details give readers some assurance that they are in good hands, that their narrator actually knows what he’s talking about.
The second scenario in which Young is remarkably effective relates to a young fighter for an Islamic fundamentalist militant group. This fourteen-year-old kid, named Hussein, was orphaned on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Illiterate and desperately poor, Hussein was swooped up by al-Shabaab, a terrorist group led by a tyrannical fundamentalist leader called the Sheikh and his unflinching hatchetman named Abdullahi, and turned into a fundamentalist thug.
Young’s treatment of Hussein is captivating. Roughly half of the book is told from Hussein’s perspective, and in doing so, Young makes the adolescent gunman three-dimensional. Rather than fall back on an easy choice of making him an unthinking, two-dimensional fighter whose sole purpose is maiming and killing unbelievers, Young probes into his mind, revealing what led him to these moments and how his mind processes the cruel world around him.
Young shows dramatic progression in the kid’s thinking as the story develops. Hussein starts out as a willing accomplice in the Sheikh and Abdullahi’s brutality, largely because he doesn’t know any better and, more importantly, they give him food. For instance, in the book’s opening scene, the Sheikh and Abdullahi stop a car with two Muslims they believe to be inadequately faithful. To test whether they are true believers, the Sheikh asks them to recite a specific surah of the Quran. Young presents the scene through Hussein’s eyes, providing a textured insight into his mind:
The travelers did not know the section of the Quran the Sheikh wanted to hear. Hussein did not know it, either, because he could not read. Nor could most of the al-Shabaab fighters. This did not trouble Hussein. Hunger left little space in his mind for irony.
When the travelers fail the test, as expected, the Sheikh orders the kid to “Give them justice.” Hussein then “slung his AK across his shoulder and unsheathed his machete.” (Although Young spares the reader of the gory details, the end result is quite clear.)
In the body of the novel, Young reveals Hussein as a smart – albeit disastrously misguided – individual. He is dogged in his pursuant of Parson and his cohorts, a teenaged Islamic fundamentalist mash-up of Les Miserables’s Inspector Javert and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
Toward the end of the novel – spoiler alert – Hussein undergoes a profound transformation. Over the course of several scenes, Hussein observes Parson interacting with the other westerners, including a blonde woman whom Hussein called Yellow Hair and a young Somali-American named Geedi who had previously served in U.S. Air Force. Once again, Young provides wonderful texture in describing Hussein’s thoughts as he watched the group discuss a recent radio call:
Hussein, of course, could understand none of the words…. He would have to ask Geedi – and trust that Geedi would tell the truth. Not understanding the conversations felt a lot like not being able to read: Hussein could rely only on the word of someone else. A weakness he knew he must remedy someday.
The one called Parson turned off the radio and spoke to the others. He gestured with his hands and talked a long time, like he was making a plan. Whatever the plan, Geedi seemed involved; Parson and Geedi talked to each other for several minutes…. All the while, Yellow Hair stood guard at the door with [an] AK-47. Hussein wondered if the woman actually knew how to shoot. He doubted it, but one never knew about these infidels and their strange ways.
The main thing Hussein noticed was the way Geedi got treated. This boss Parson spoke to him in the tones one might use with a brother, not the way a commander would speak to an underling. And not the way Abdullahi had always spoken to Hussein. At the end of the conversation, Parson even patted Geedi on the back and smiled. Assuming these gaalos [unbelieving foreigners] told the truth about anything, Geedi had once been a Somali boy like Hussein. How did he reach a place where these people treated him like an equal?
Young is at his best in passages like this – not just using Hussein’s perspective to tell the story, which is an interesting device in its own right, but also to reflect the depth of young gunman’s observations and development. That this highly violent Islamic fundamentalist who is capable of extreme brutality comes off as sympathetic is a testament to Young’s character development and storytelling ability.
All told, The Hunters is an engaging read – those who enjoy smart thrillers with a solid dose of action will enjoy this book.
Mark Lee Greenblatt is the author of Valor: Unsung Heroes from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, (Taylor Trade, 2014), which is available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores across the country. Mark has been appeared on NBC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox News Radio, CSPAN-Book TV, Wall Street Journal TV, Forbes.com, and dozens of other media outlets. Visit Mark’s website to learn more about the heroes in Valor or to send an email to the heroes.