Greg Rucka is a serial series writer. Aside from penning big-name comic-book titles for DC and Marvel, the Portland-based author is responsible for the excellent Atticus Kodiak novels (about a soldier turned bodyguard), the Queen & Country line of comic books (about an elite British SIS agent), and the Stumptown comics series (about a private detective). You're probably sensing a theme. But the important thing all three have in common are compelling lead characters that have kept us craving more after each book.
Alpha (Mulholland Books, 304 pages, $24.99) is the first novel in Rucka's newest series. His protagonist is Jonathan "Jad" Bell, a former master sergeant in the U.S. Army's secretive counterterrorism unit, and he fits the above character profile well: a professional badass, often facing life-or-death situations, who must balance this career with the far more challenging prospects of his personal and family lives. Like his predecessors, Bell is better with his fists than he is with his heart.
In this particular case, Bell—back on duty after leaving the Army and his wife months earlier—is trying to stop a biochemical terrorist attack on a theme park, where his deaf teenage daughter is being held hostage. It's as silly as it sounds, but it seems Rucka knows this, and instead of trying to play up the dark and dangerous, the focus is squarely on the action.
The serious shoot-'em-up stuff kicks in around page 98 and doesn't let up for the next 200 pages, but Rucka does a masterful job creating his playing field in this setup. The Southern California theme park is pretty clearly supposed to be Disneyland, but setting a terrorist-themed novel there could clearly draw the litigious wrath of Uncle Walt. So this story takes place in "WilsonVille," among a cast of vaguely familiar but non-copyright-infringing characters. As a comic-book writer, Rucka understands the importance of visuals better than many, and this story's engagement relies heavily on the reader to visualize multiple storylines—not to mention the fight sequences—taking place across this elaborate stage.
Less masterful is the characterization of Jad Bell himself. Barring an opening sequence describing the aging soldier's one-night stand with a 20-year-old barista while having combat flashbacks, we get very little insight into our hero. In fact, we spend far more time with the story's villain, and it's generally a bad sign when you're almost rooting for the terrorist to make it out alive. Rucka's other flawed but likable characters kept me coming back. With Bell, I feel much like the barista: We spent one great night together, but I have no great desire to form a long-term relationship.
READ: Alpha by Greg Rucka is on sale in bookstores.