Good lord, it's feels like it's taken me years to finally getting around to doing this. Well, probably not years, but way too long. I certainly pushed this one around far longer than I initially wanted, and that kind of stepmotherly treatment is something the novel under no circumstances deserved.
BLACK FLAGGED is fellow author Steven Konkoly's second novel after his excellent superflu thriller THE JAKARTA PANDEMIC. For those of you not wanting to read the linked review I very much enjoyed The Jakarta Pandemic for its believable characters and its plausible plot and can highly recommend it to everybody the least interested in thrillers and post-apocalyptic novels. At its heart it's not quite about the end of the world, but about the all too thin veneer between civilization and savagery nowadays humans take for granted.
Then what about Black Flagged? Let me try this with adjectives. Uncompromising. Fast. Intriguing. Surprising. Hard.
The Jakarta Pandemic was a good debut novel. In Black Flagged Steven Konkoly shows he has honed his skill further in the meantime. The cast is larger, the stakes are higher, the players' motives more diverse and nebulous and ultimately deadly. Konkoly replaces a simple father stuck in suburbia during a global pandemic with a trained killer and the halls of Washington and Langley.
A graduate of the Department of Defense's experimental Black Flag program, Daniel Petrovich carries secrets he'd rather keep buried. Secrets his government has hidden in the deepest vaults of the Pentagon. Unfortunately for Daniel, someone is trying to raise Black Flag from the dead and bring Daniel back with it. Someone who knows all of his darkest secrets.
In exchange for the promise of a clean slate and a chance to keep the life he has built with the woman he loves, he agrees to carry out one final mission.
Daniel's life is about to disintegrate, as he becomes the focus of a relentless FBI manhunt and the target of a vengeful CIA agent. To survive, he'll be forced to release a dark side he fought for years to keep suppressed. A dark side with few boundaries, and even fewer loyalties.
Daniel Petrovich and the cast of characters he works with or against are memorable and distinguishable, not a small feat on its own considering the sizeable number of men and women appearing in Black Flagged. The action is hard, brutal and unforgiving, and while Daniel Petrovich may be the novel's protagonist he is no white knight in shining armor. Konkoly makes it painfully clear that the world of covert operations and espionage is not a field suited for romaticism. People die, some quite horribly so. The fact that Black Flagged is uncompromising in its portrayal of this reality (without straying into territory too gory for comfort) is one of many points that endeared the story to me. A second point is that it's a decidedly gray novel, concerning its overall morality. There truly are no good or bad guys (except the Serbian paramilitaries appearing in a few flashbacks; those are decidedly bad). Everybody acts they way they do for a good reason. Who is like and why is completely up to you, the reader.
I can't go into the plot because whatever I'll say will spoiler something, but suffice to say it's fast, hard and mature.
The novel's Amazon description reads Black Flagged lays the foundation for a gritty, unapologetic series exploring the often unceremoniously brutal world of covert operatives and government agency politics. Technically, I could leave it at that because this is one of those rare cases of "What you see is what you get". This isn't about a goody-two shoes agent but about a man drawn into a mission and into a life he had hoped to have left behind a long time ago. About the fight against international terror, but even more so about one man's plot against the US government - with the end goal to help that very government!
One thing the novel also achieves quite superbly - and that's a rather rare treat in that type of thriller - is that Black Flagged is largely apolitical. The very genre usually leans heavily in one direction or another, but I felt and saw none of that here. Now, as a foreigner I'm admittedly not privvy to many of the subtleties of US, but that's what I took from Black Flagged, and that's good thing. I don't want my thrillers to be neo-conservative or liberal or preachy in general; I want them to be hard and entertaining. Black Flagged is the latter.
I thoroughly enjoyed Black Flagged, even more so than I did The Jakarta Pandemic. So much, infact, that I've just bought the sequel, Black Flagged Redux. I really can only sing the highest praises of these novels. They are well worth your time and money.