Book Review: Drive (The Volunteers Book 1) by John Nuckel

 

             Weaving history with critical contemporary issues, Drive is a fast-paced, intelligently written political thriller in which two parallel stories intertwine, taking the reader into two different worlds, both intriguing and complex. Without being hasty or tiring, Drive packs up flawlessly suspense, political commentary, family drama, and romance with refreshing snippets of humor.

             The first storyline revives the gritty atmosphere of the late 1800s, early 1990s New York when thugs and gangs ruled the streets and America’s most influential and remarkable men fought to clean the city and transform it into a prosperous and equitable place. With an almost cinematic gaze, the author recreates this fascinating episode in the history of New York, bringing to life extremely compelling characters, from gang members to prominent industrialists and principled journalists. The second storyline brings us back to today when crime has moved from the streets to the highest levels of politics, administration, and business. The new generations of criminals are no longer simple thugs, but rather technological geniuses who can run the world from the comfort of their homes, manipulating data and using groundbreaking innovation.

The link between these two different worlds is a 100-years old secret organization, the Volunteers, guided by a timeless principle: Et Omnia Recta, meaning to make things right. Established in the 1900s by Captain Kane of the Rough Riders, with the backing of Teddy Roosevelt and New York’s most powerful bankers and businessmen, the Volunteers are influential men and women working behind the scenes to fight corruption and greed where the normal protocols of law enforcement are useless. Extraordinary skilled men guided by a sense of honor and justice above anything else, the Volunteers seek no fortune, fame, or recognition. Either working-class men, bankers, journalists or gunmen, they all follow the same principles and do things that incompetent politicians and crooked police officers will never do, which is to protect the innocent of New York and punish the wrongdoers that use their wealth and connections to get away with their exploits.

If the first generation of Volunteers was fighting the Italian mafia and Irish gangs of thieves in the streets of New York, the playground of 21st-century criminals is different and the organization has evolved accordingly. The descendants of the Volunteers, following the same guiding principles, must now fight terrorists, hackers, and spies. The organization’s newest recruit, New York police officer Annie Falcone, has the mission to protect the country’s top technological genius from his delinquent Chinese rival. Following Annie in her attempt to fulfill her mission, the reader gets immersed in the history of the Volunteers and their present struggles. Knowing that in one of his mad streaks,  Chinese hacker Sheng can trigger a worldwide crisis, the Volunteers’ current mission is to outsmart him and Annie is the perfect person to ensure their plan runs smoothly.

Since the chapters alternate between the two plotlines, there is a constant layer of suspense and an underlying tension which are wonderfully counterbalanced by humorous dialogue and compact descriptions. What makes the book so interesting is that the author continues to introduce well developed, magnetic characters who add new complex dimensions to the plot. The abundance of historical references gives a certain larger-than-life distinction to the fictional plot. In fact, the author is incredibly adept at recreating historical scenes. The flattering portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, who appears very charming and natural, is a good example of fiction feeding on history.  At the same time, the treatment of contemporary issues such as hacking, data fraud, deep cover, and ethical use of technology keeps the story within the same timeless parameters: justice/corruption, greed/service, personal fulfillment/wealth, loyalty/betrayal. The clashes of values, however, play out in original ways. The moral lines are blurry, even for the Volunteers, who cannot decide whether they are heroes or madmen. It seems that character growth will be very important in the unraveling of the plot in the continuation of the series, especially as the reader witnesses key characters such as tech mogul Hank Suarez trying to define his aspirations.

While the jump in time adds to the tension, even without it, the intricacy of the plots and the number of diversions, cover-ups, and deceptions keep readers really focused. Between political leaders who make deals with gunmen and cops who make deals with Chinese hackers, there is plenty of room for surprises. More tension surfaces as a result of the romantic plot in the background, but emotional highs and lows are perfectly balanced, and personal drama is interspersed throughout the plot with respect to its relevance. The precise execution of the scenes is admirable. Not only that there is a great diversity of characters, but none of them is unidimensional. From kings of New York crime world to historical figures like Roosevelt or John D. Rockefeller, each character is complex to the point that every hero may turn into a crook and every crook into a hero, while corrupt policemen and honest thugs are not rare.

With so much to offer, Drive keeps the reader enthralled until the end, serving a powerful lesson in how acts of courage change history. John Nuckel truly succeeds at arousing interest in his characters, which will certainly prompt interest in the future books of the series.