Book Review: Something to Die For (Ryan Drake, Book 9), by Will Jordan
In Something to Die For, Will Jordan demonstrates two important yet sadly, rare attributes. First, he illustrates that he has deep love and enthusiasm for the genre in which he writes. Second, he understands what works and what doesn’t, and knows how to avoid the pitfalls that spoil so many works.
These abilities should be common knowledge for anybody who is aware of Jordan’s YouTube persona, The Critical Drinker. The Drinker is a hard-partying alcoholic whose profane and vulgar demeanor masks a surprisingly perceptive and often hilarious understanding of entertainment, particularly what works and what fails miserably. In only about two years, Jordan has built up a substantial following on his channels The Critical Drinker and Critical Drinker After Hours. On the former channel, the Drinker provides pithy opinions on movies, television shows, and other cultural issues, usually in ten to twenty minutes. Some of his most popular topics (and frequently, targets of ire), are Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Marvel movies, and many more franchises that he feels have fallen off the rails.
Not all of his reviews are negative. One of the most enjoyable series on the channel is The Drinker Recommends, where he praises worthy productions. Other recurring features of note are “The Drinker Fixes,” where he provides an outline on how to fix seriously flawed films, and “Production Hell,” which is composed of mini-documentaries on movies– some great, some awful, and some never actually filmed– where the behind-the scenes conflict was more intense and twisted than anything that a Hollywood screenwriter could create. On his “After Hours” series, the Drinker provides shorter reviews, usually recommendations of overlooked movies, and long-form discussions of works with fellow YouTube critics. In all of his videos, the Drinker provides his unique blend of insight and over-the-top raucousness.
The maxim “those who can’t do, teach” is often a fallacy, but the companion maxim “those who can’t write, criticize” has a bit more truth to it. This second definitely does not apply to Jordan (and this critic will indignantly insist that the same exception applies to himself). While the lion’s share of the works reviewed by the Drinker fall into the sci-fi/fantasy genre (though there are many exceptions), loyal viewers will note that there are plenty of glowing recommendations of war and action movies as well.
It’s therefore not surprising that when Jordan turned his hand to writing fiction, he created a series centered around an ex-British soldier turned CIA agent, Ryan Drake. Over the course of nine books, Drake and his colleagues engage in international adventures that not only might affect the geopolitical future of the world, but which are also connected to Drake’s own troubled family past.
Something to Die For is the last book in the series, though I should stress that simply because the series is ending, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one should jump to conclusions about the ultimate fate of the central character. Something to Die For actually works fairly well as a standalone, though if this is your first foray into the Ryan Drake saga (as it was for me), you may wind up missing some of the character development and nuance that filled earlier installments. Thankfully, Jordan manages to provide concise background details throughout Something to Die For that provide all the new reader needs to know in a sentence or two, without falling into the common trap of “expositionitis,” which bogs down entries in many series. Still, I would probably recommend that readers start at the beginning of the series, so as not to have crucial plot points and character fates spoiled.
Something to Die For opens with Ryan Drake on the run, nearly devoid of allies except for his sister Jessica. As the book progresses, Drake has to escape the reach of both Marcus Cain, the sinister Director of the CIA, and the Circle, one of those incredibly powerful cabals so popular in thrillers that manages to control the world despite no one save for a select few knowing about it. Meanwhile, some former colleagues of Drake’s are battling their own problems, and a final message from Drake and Jessica’s mysterious mother will lead the siblings into danger, but maybe, if they’re very lucky, triumphant vindication as well.
Even if I hadn’t known that Jordan and the Critical Drinker were the same person, I would’ve guessed it, as many of the Drinker’s common complaints are addressed and rectified here. For example, the Drinker never tires of rolling his eyes of the trope that has exploded in use since the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where ninety-pound actress are portrayed as being able to beat up “very accommodating stuntmen” twice their height and weight without breaking a sweat. In Something to Die For, one tough, highly trained woman reflects on how despite all of her training, she has no chance of defeating a man much larger than her in hand-to-hand combat. Another common Drinker comment consists of his expressing his appreciation for emotionally complex villains where you can at least understand their motives, and even if you don’t agree with them, you can see that they have a point. Both Cain’s and the Circle’s worldviews are explored here, and even though their motives are far from pure, by providing the reasons why they think they are justified, Jordan manages to create much more nuanced antagonists, where the heroes don’t just have to fight a powerful force, but they have to defeat an idea as well.
Something to Die For is very cinematic, by which I mean that it reads like a screenplay that has been edited into prose. This is not a criticism, just a comment on the fast-paced style, which focuses on keeping the action going, rather than meandering and navel-gazing.
As I wrote earlier, I have not read the first eight entries in the series, but I could tell that I was reading the tail end of several character arcs, a literary feature that Jordan comments on so frequently as the Drinker. I have not idea of how Drake started the series as a character, but I’d very much like to find out. Many of his friends and allies needed more fleshing out as characters, though I have the sense that if I’d read the first eight books, I’d have a much better sense of who they are and why they became the people they did. By far, the best character relationship is that of Drake and his sister Jessica, who have an excellent working partnership while still maintaining the lovingly abrasive and frustrating connection that forms the basis of many sibling bonds.
If there’s one complaint that I have regarding the book, it’s that Jordan’s greatest strength as the Drinker, his uproarious humor, is largely absent. I’m not asking for this to be turned into a comedy, but I do think that some carefully crafted wit would have helped newcomers like me in terms of understanding the characters. One of the least appreciated and underutilized means of character development is humor– illustrating a character’s sense of humor– even if it isn’t funny to most people– is a quick and effective way of showing what a person is like, and this would have been a useful way of differentiating and humanizing the supporting cast. Incidentally, if Jordan ever decided to turn his keyboard to creating a picaresque novel in the vein of A Confederacy of Dunces featuring his intoxicated alter ego and his misadventures, I’d be first in line to buy it.
Nitpicking aside, I had a terrific time reading Something to Die For, mostly because Jordan knew what kind of story he wanted to tell and how to tell it in the most effective way possible. When a plot’s full of adrenaline and testosterone, its intelligence often gets overlooked and downplayed. Jordan knows how to make a book both smart and fun, and in an age where most of our entertainment is bland and predictable, that’s remarkable.
Something to Die For
By Will Jordan