The novel begins with the opening ceremonies in the behemoth stadium coined “the bird’s nest” with an unexpected and very violent operation involving both the private security firm and Chinese Special Forces. A group of what the Chinese believe to be terrorists are captured in the delivery access area of the stadium. It is a quick and violent operation that isn’t noticed by anyone, including the media, but leads the protagonist, Tag McCall, into a dark and dangerous mission that will cost him more than he can fathom.
Dragon Games is a throwback in the thriller racket. It is more adventure and less bombast. The writing is tight and literate, and the plot is streamlined into an action packed story that is more believable, and therefore more suspenseful, than the common variety 21st Century thriller.
The prose is strong and shifts from a rich and almost poetic cadence to a stark and pounding hardboiled style that is reminiscent of the suspense novels of the 1970s and 80s. It is, however, not a rehash of anything old or new. The story is original and the style is all Stephen Mertz. It is a modern adventure novel that it is better than most in its category.
The characters, particularly the hero, are built around the story, but they have a certain reality that gives them a flesh and blood feel. They have families, love, hate, hope and even dreams. Their back stories are sprinkled throughout the novel with a sparseness that allows the reader to relate to the characters without slowing the pace of the plot.
Dragon Games is the best of Stephen Mertz’s novels. The narrative is strong, the characters are vivid and bold, and the story is exotic, enticing, and damn fun. There are brief touches of understated humor mixed with ratcheting tension and action, and richly detailed and interesting descriptions of Beijing, the Olympics and the Chinese people. Mr Mertz has written a novel that is worthy of the first tier of suspense and action novels.
This review was originally published in slightly different form at the long ago blog Dark City Underground on June 1, 2010.