Book Review: The Dark Continent, by Scott Reardon

My review of the new thriller from Scott Reardon, featuring bonus references to cheesy 90s action movies. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

As someone who has seen Roland Emmerich’s 1992 classic Universal Soldier more times than I care to count, and as a fan of Warhammer 40,000 (the most famous protagonists of which are the genetically engineered superhumans known as Space Marines), on paper, The Dark Continent should be exactly my kind of fare. Opening with a note to the reader that it follows on from another novel (2017’s The Prometheus Man), knowledge of which is not essential for this story, the plot follows three different characters – Tom Reese, survivor of the Prometheus Program, a top secret, experimental program to enhance human beings with stem cell injections; Karl Lyons, the CIA agent who recruited Tom, now out to shut down other Prometheus sites; and Dr. Azamor, the scientist working with the death row inmates who have – somewhat inevitably – been selected for the current wave of enhancements. I say “somewhat inevitably” because, well, isn’t it always the way? Just as with Dolph Lundgren’s gleefully demented Andrew Scott in Universal Soldier, as well as Justin Cronin’s 2010 epic The Passage, those surprisingly short-sighted boffins have decided that the best candidates to receive a leg up the evolutionary ladder are the most depraved murderers and psychopaths they can lay their hands on. It’s here we first meet Dr. Azamor, as she assesses and acquires yet another specimen. Speaking of The Passage, in fact, it’s worth mentioning that The Dark Continent is at times cut from a cloth so similar it could be mistaken for the same book – the recruiting of death row inmates for genetic enhancement, the dynamic of a similarly capable being tracking down the rogue subjects, even the mind games played on the research team by those subjects. And the most dangerous, most devious subject, who masterminds everything, is somewhat tellingly named Kronin.

Where The Passage trilogy spanned generations over its combined (and whopping) 2000 pages plus length, The Dark Continent weighs in at a much more free time friendly 400 or so, without taking into account the preceding book which, as mentioned, is not essential reading for enjoyment of this one. I did find there was perhaps the odd occasion where I wanted to know a little more about a character, or their relationship to someone else, so if you’re someone for whom FOMO is the worst feeling imaginable, picking up The Prometheus Man before this might be a good call. These instances were very rare however, and didn’t bother me untowardly. In fact, for the first half of the book, I was mostly just concerned about flying through as quickly as possible – varied locations, interesting characters and pacey action kept me turning the pages late into the night. Having never read any Robert Ludlum, I can’t say how accurately his work has been translated to screen, so it’s the films that I’m thinking of here, but Tom Reese demonstrates his formidable capabilities with Bourne-like prowess. Chase scenes in particular, not just involving Tom but also Karl, are also high octane and exciting.

Of course, the big bad psychopaths are what the story is really leading up to, and when we eventually meet Kronin, he doesn’t disappoint. The philosophising, menacing alpha of this particularly rabid pack is equal parts Hannibal Lecter and Dracula, with some shark DNA thrown in for good measure. He glowers behind the plexiglass screens of his cage, biding his time and laying his plans until his inevitable breakout. It’s once the subjects are on the loose that the body count really starts to climb, unsurprisingly, with their escape itself positively nightmarish, all darkened corridors and stormy weather. It’s a high point which the novel struggles to reach again, in all honesty.

The second part of the novel lacks the pace of the first, with the characters much more prone to introspection. It felt a lot like the first half of the novel existed as a set up for the situation in the second, with said situation then not really being capitalised on in terms of the stories that could have been told. A lot of the moral debates and dilemmas that Tom in particular has also feel at odds with the content of the rest of the novel – whilst they serve the purpose of reminding us that Tom is different to the other subjects, they feel very heavy handed and none too subtle at times, making some sections feel like something of a slog, and quite depressing. Some let up from the relentless savagery and depravity would have worked wonders in this section, and overall it leads to a feeling that this is two different books stitched together. Appropriate, perhaps, to think of it as a bit of a literary Frankenstein’s monster, given the subject matter.

In conclusion then, The Dark Continent is an enjoyable grab bag of influences, and for the most part it’s well executed and tautly plotted. Reardon writes well, indeed at times there are real flashes of brilliance, particularly in terms of setting – many locales are depicted so vividly that I’m still seeing them in my mind’s eye days later. Action set pieces are entertaining and frantic, but it’s a pace that’s difficult to sustain over the course of the whole novel, and when the foot comes off the gas it almost stalls. A strong finish, however, leaves the way open for a sequel, and I would be interested to see where this story goes in the future.

The Dark Continent is published by Aspen Press and is available through this affiliate link.

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