Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: "Graveyard of Memories" by Barry Eisler

"If you knew at the outset what you understood at the end, would you make the same choices, take the same risks, accept the same sacrifices?"

So asks John Rain, the enigmatically magnetic mercenary who is the protagonist of Barry Eisler's fantastic series of books, which include Rain Fall, Hard Rain, and Rain Storm. (I believe that the publisher has changed all of the titles of these books now, but these are the original titles I'm familiar with.) Rain is a deadly, intelligent adversary who has the uncanny ability to separate what he does from whom he does it to.

But how did Rain become a mercenary, a man without a true home and very few real connections? Graveyard of Memories is an excellent prequel that finds 20-year-old Rain in 1972 Tokyo, when he is fresh out of the Vietnam War and still a little shaken by what he had to do in the heat of battle. Working as a bagman for the CIA, he mostly delivers cash to another third party, and doesn't really want to know much about where the money really goes or what it's ultimately used for.

One day following an exchange, Rain's impetuousness inflames his hair-trigger temper and causes him to lash out in violence, at the wrong people, which ultimately leaves him the target of one of Japan's more powerful yakuza families. In an effort to protect himself, and perhaps ingratiate himself with his CIA handler, he takes the only path he can—kill before he is killed—but he also agrees to murder a high-profile member of the Japanese government at his handler's behest. It is through these encounters that the roots of Rain's patience and intelligence begin to take root, although they're often obscured by his impulsiveness and the pride of a brash 20-year-old.

As Rain tries to get himself out of the mess he's created, he instead begins realizing he may have found himself in a Gordian knot of sorts, one from which he may not be able to escape. Meanwhile, alone and adrift, without family or any real friends save a policeman he's reluctant to speak with, he finds himself falling for Sayaka, the intelligent, stubborn night clerk at a love hotel. Confined to a wheelchair, Sayaka doesn't know what to make of John, and as his feelings for her grow deeper, so does his dilemma about his "situation" and how to solve it once and for all.

I have loved all of Eisler's John Rain novels so far, and Graveyard of Memories is a worthy addition to this series. Eisler has a true talent for balancing bloody, movie-worthy violence with strong character development, and he does a fantastic job in laying the foundation of Rain's early life, which clearly makes him into the man he becomes in later books. It's a strong writer who can keep you interested in a character who kills people for a living, even if they "deserve" to be killed, but the ease with which Rain ultimately operates somehow doesn't make him seem unsympathetic or psychotic. This book lays bare a little more of how Rain's mindset came to be, and you find yourself utterly compelled.

When I read some of my favorite series of books, I always feel as if getting another opportunity to spend time with characters I enjoy is like spending time with an old friend, no matter how twisted that friend may be. Reading Graveyard of Memories is a unique opportunity to get to understand what makes a character tick, and you realize just why they fascinate you so.

I really hope it's not long before Eisler gives us another glimpse into the world of John Rain. It's a violent but incredibly fascinating world to visit.

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