Title: Orphan X
Rating: 4 Stars
Orphan X was a formulaic but largely satisfying action hero novel.
Evan Smoak is a twelve year old being raised in a tough orphanage. A mysterious man in an expensive car checks out the orphans. After watching for a while, the man beckons Evan over and offers a ride. No, it’s not going to be that kind of novel.
Instead, the man, Jack Johns, offers to take him in. In exchange, Evan must blindly obey him and allow Jack to mold him. Evan, not having any better option, agrees to stay with Jack.
There, at the age of 12, Jack begins to indoctrinate Evan into the Orphan program. It’s a highly secretive organization that trains young children in a wide variety of weaponry, combat, espionage, and a whole myriad of other things to create highly efficient secret agents.
Evan becomes an adult and is one of the most successful and lethal agents in the program. Eventually he gets burned and has to leave the program, knowing that people and governments all of the world are looking for him.
He leaves with a tremendous amount of money. Using that money, he builds a whole new identity and protects himself with multiple layers of security.
Along with lethality, Jack has taught Evan humanity. Therefore, Evan decides to use his power for good and puts a mechanism in place that allows desperate people with no hope left to anonymously contact him. It then becomes his mission to rectify each of their situations.
As he’s doing this for one of the victims that he’s trying to save, his past comes back to haunt him. And the story is off and running.
This is clearly well trod territory. For those old enough to remember, think about the series The Equalizer. For those even older and want to think about cowboys and masks, think about The Long Ranger. Or, you could be me and think about my beloved Jack Reacher.
Here is the man (and it’s always a man) that is insanely competent and wants to help the hopeless (usually women and children). At some level, it’s probably every man’s fantasy to be that kind of hero.
Equally well trod is the whole orphan wants to save the world theme. Everyone thinks about Batman. Even more on point is the Kung Fu television series, where the orphaned Caine is raised by a wise man who teaches him both the ways of violence as well as the ways of wisdom.
Another common theme is the highly trained spy equal to every situation. He knows all about pirating cell phone service via his neighbor’s wireless, he knows every form of martial art available, he knows what weapons to use and when. He’s part of an ultra top secret organization that even other top secret organizations have never heard of. Think of the Bourne trilogy and the Milo Weaver trilogy (eg The Tourist).
Having said all of that, even though it’s well trod, it actually is very well executed. The bad guys are really bad guys. The innocent women and children are all adorable and vulnerable. The high tech weaponry and martial arts are all impressively described.
So, it knows what it is and it does its best with it. There’s no danger of a Nobel Prize being awarded, but sometimes you just want a fun read and this met that bill.
I do have one hilarious comment. Books like this go into some insane detail regarding technology (I think you can probably thank Tom Clancy for that since he pretty much invented the techno-thriller). When a book goes into that much detail regarding brand name, model name, caliber, refresh rate, armor thickness, etc, you really want to be impressed by the knowledge of the author. Part of sucking you into a genre like this is being buried in a myriad of details that no one can possibly know. It just seems that much more impressive that the protagonist so clearly has so much more training and arcane knowledge than you can ever have.
So, it actually is pretty amusing when an author gets a pretty basic fact exactly wrong. Remember that Evan’s handler is Jack. Jack is Evan’s sole contact with the Orphan program. They must have an infallible, hack-proof way of communicating. So, this Orphan program, full of highly trained agents constantly in fear of being exposed and to face certain death, communicate with their handlers via…shared draft gMail messages, because draft gMail messages aren’t stored anywhere on the internet.
That’s a pretty monumentally stupid thing to say. Just ask David Petraeus (google his name and gMail). Granted he was CIA Director at the time, which brings it to a world class level of stupidity, but it was 2012. In 2016, given the Petraeus debacle, to still be using that as your means of clandestine state of the art communication is pretty funny.
Despite that, I got over it and had a good read.