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The Plantation is the first book to feature Chris Kuzneski's ex-military men Jon Payne and David Jones. Like so many debut novels, it was initially self-published and didn't actually become widely available in the UK until after the success of his second novel, the Sign of the Cross.
In their first adventure, Payne & Jones are working to track down Payne's girlfriend, Arianne who disappears in mysterious circumstances. Their adventures lead them down to New Orleans, where they uncover some very dark secrets from the past that threaten the happiness of Payne's future.
Although it was his first novel, if you have read other Payne & Jones books, you will instantly recognise the basic Kuzneski formula. All the elements that are present in later novels are here in embryonic form. The banter between the two main characters and their ability to switch from jokers to killers in the blink of an eye; the wild adventures they embark upon; their strong sense of camaraderie and their ability to uncover (and prevent) dark conspiracies.
As you might expect from a first novel, although present, these elements are not as polished as they are in later books. There is a sense that Kuzneski is groping his way towards a narrative that suits him and that The Planation is very much a testing ground to see what works and what doesn't.
Not that this is something you should hold against The Plantation. Whilst it might be a little raw in places, it is still an enjoyable read; possibly not quite up to the standard of later novels, but there's still plenty to keep you entertained. For the most part, the action races along, with regular plot developments, lots of set-pieces and plenty of banter. Kuzneski handles the introduction of his characters well, providing enough information so that you feel that you get to know them, without spending too long describing them. As with later novels, Kuzneski maintains a good balance between action and plot development, making The Plantation an easy read.
Of course, being a debut novelist, he does make some mistakes. As with so many first-time authors, his language can sometimes be a little florid, using a few too many narrative tricks (alliteration, similes). Due to this, a few passages become overly descriptive, which works against the fast-paced nature of the narrative. A good example of this comes in the very first chapter, when he is describing the attempt by one man to escape from his captors. This needs to be fast-paced, stripped of all unnecessary verbiage so that the pace of the passage reflects the pace and panic of the pursuit. Instead, Kuzneski takes the time to provide us with unnecessary details like the fact the man being pursued is 32 years old and from Colorado. These are things which (at this point) are completely irrelevant and serve only to slow the pace down.
Partly due to Kuzneski's tendency to provide too much information, The Plantation is also a little long. The ending in particular is drawn out and feels a little like The Return of the King (the film) with too many multiple endings. The Plantation is not quite as bad, but it does rather feel that Kuzneski is artificially drawing things out, just to add to the word/page count.
For the most part, though, Kuzneski gets more right than he does wrong. He knows how to think up a story which can hook the reader, creates likeable characters that are fun to be with, and keeps the pace racing along so that, whilst the reader's attention might occasionally wander, they are never bored.
One thing that works particularly well is the central characters of Payne and Jones. Like so many other elements they are not quite the finished product, but they are still an awful lot of fun to be with. In particular, their banter is not quite as polished or amusing as in later books (though still funny) and they are not quite as intelligent (there is one plot "twist" which takes P&J an eternity to work out - the reader will have seen it coming for at least 50 pages). Yet any weaknesses in the characters can be forgiven; partly because most people will already have read previous books, so will know how the characters evolve and partly because even in this embryonic form they are still strong characters.
Another plus point is that The Plantation is mostly devoid of some of Kuzneski's more annoying later stylistic flourishes. His frustrating habit of ending chapters with a trailer for what is to come ("little did they know...") is more restrained. Similarly, his habit of opening chapters with a potted history of the latest location is mostly absent. It's a shame that Kuzneski couldn't have carried this part of his writing into later novels.
If you enjoy fast-paced thrillers or have read the previous Payne & Jones titles, then The Plantation will not disappoint. It might not be quite as strong as subsequent novels, but it shows plenty of promise and, for a first time novel, proves to be a great read.
Paradox Publishing, 2001
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013
THE KUZNESKI CANON
I have thoroughly enjoyed my trawl through the entire published works of Chris Kuzneski, and, although that doesn't sound nearly as worthy as a similar trek through the collected works of, say, Thomas Hardy, it has been a worthwhile enterprise. In back to front fashion, I ended my journey at the beginning - with Kuzneski's first book - The Plantation. However, I do have a flimsy excuse. Although The Plantation was the first novel Kuzneski ever wrote, it wasn't his first published work. That milestone belongs to "Sign of the Cross" which was released by his publisher first to capitalise from the mass interest generated by Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code".
ONCE UPON A TIME...
The Plantation introduces the reader to the dynamic duo that sit at the heart of every Kuzneski book to date - Jonathon Payne and David Jones. Although both play an integral part in the novel(s), Payne is definitely the Alpha male, with Jones as his sidekick - think Batman and Robin, but without the silly costumes. These guys are best buddies from their time in the military, serving with a covert special and "black" operations team drawn from the best the American forces have to offer (the fictional "MANIACS" - Marines, Army, Navy, Intelligence, Air Force and Coast Guard - and yes, I thought it was just as corny as you thinking now).
In any event, Payne's plans for relaxing long weekend playing golf with his stereotypically stunning but down to earth girlfriend (with a bit of get up and go and brains about her - did I mention clichéd?) are rudely interrupted when she goes missing. Enlisting the assistance of his mate, he and Jonesy, who Payne has set up in business as a PI, go about trying to track her down. They quickly find out she has been kidnapped, but not by who and for what reason. The search leads them to New Orleans in relatively quick time, where the story really takes off. Given the background of the two main protagonists, it's not long before their special forces training - replete with interesting ordnance and a few MacGyver moments - comes in very handy.
In parallel, we are also introduced, very early on, to the villains of the piece - a shadowy organisation hell bent on revenge and who appear to revel in the sadistic torture - both physical and psychological - of their captives. However, little is revealed about what these bad guys are up to, which keeps the reader guessing as to their real intent and purpose. Needless to say, the two strands of the story converge in a rip-roaring finale.
Having read his previous work, The Plantation surprisingly doesn't feel like a first effort. Part of that is down to the fact that it was partly re-written and updated after the commercial success of his first two books. Although this was his "first" novel, it was the third published, so the author had the chance to go back and, in his own words, cut out "several mistakes rookie writers tend to make". The story seems to have benefitted from a bit of polish and restraint, making it a taut, tightly paced and suspenseful thriller that really is a joy to read.
There are several scenes in the book that unflinchingly portray graphic violence, yet as the author explains in his notes, none of it is gratuitous and each has a specific and justifiable purpose. Kuzneski also shows a real talent for building up tension - the kind where you really want to turn the page to find out what happens, but at the same time, are not sure you really want to know.
Kuzneski spends a fair bit of time fleshing out his main characters, but you don't really get to know them until you have read more of his books. As such, I rather suspect that for the first time reader, the dynamic duo may come across as slightly two dimensional. That said, this best buddy relationship seems to work pretty well even if it is highly reminiscent of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt and Al Giordano (i.e. fully paid up members of the "laugh and wisecrack in the face of impending peril" brigade). It's a testament to Kuzneski's writing ability that despite the inevitable comparisons to similar characters by more established authors, he manages to give his heroes a distinct personality and style.
As for Payne's girlfriend, the near-perfect Ariane, it's not that she doesn't make for a decent damsel in distress, but she is never really developed at all, and is patently a plot device to push the story along. The consequence is that the reader does not really develop any kind of emotional investment in the search and rescue for her.
Fortunately, the same can't be said of Payne and Jones' sinister adversaries, who are very well characterised and quickly earn the readers dislike - by the end, you are desperately hoping that they get what is coming to them. It would have been very easy to cross the line into the realms of pantomime with these unsavoury "gentlemen" but Kuzneski's approach remains restrained throughout. He gives you a glimmer of insight into the twisted rationale for their behaviour - just enough tot transform them from cartoonish to truly frightening.
The plot is well developed and keeps you guessing throughout, but no so much that you don't anticipate the threads of the tale coming together. I like authors who slightly telegraph the story developments, but keep one or two twists back to add genuine surprise elements. That way, you feel clever about having worked things out to a degree, but not so much that it spoils the payoff.
The Plantation was a cracking and genuinely original story which I enjoyed reading from start to finish. It is a tautly paced and very well written, with a satisfying payoff which leaves the reader wanting to read more. While it's tempting to say I seem to have saved the best for last, I think I enjoyed "The Lost Throne" a little bit more . That said, I would place this a solid second in the Kuzneski canon.
Berkley Publishing Group
RRP £5.18 (Available on Amazon as at 05/2010 for £3.76)
© Hishyeness 2010
When shopping online for Chris Kuzneski's latest book, "The Prophecy", I thought I'd check how much I could get this one for. I knew that it had only recently been released in the UK, though available in the USA for ages. Since it was the bargain price of under £4.00, I bought it immediately. When they arrived, I decided to first read his new book, and then to read this after. If you read my previous Kuzneski review, you will know I wasn't too pleased with The Prophecy, but knew when I started this one that I was into a good book..
The book opens with a foreword, written by Chris himself, giving a little information about the book, he mentions how he nearly gave up trying to be a professional author, after receiving so many rejections from agents and publishers. That was, until he discovered Print on Demand, meaning he could get the books printed after orders were received - saving the expensive upfront costs. He wrote to many of his own favourite authors, and gave them copies of the book to read, and they all loved it, and endorsed the novel. At this same time, an agent had bought his book at a store in Philly, and loved it so much he e-mailed Chris, who had just completed writing his second book. It was then that his career was truly born.
The book is the first in the series of books featuring David Jones and Jonathan Payne, best friends and ex-MANIACs, an elite force of the US military, and the story evolves around the kidnapping of Payne's girlfriend, Arianne. Jones and Payne travel across state borders into New Orleans seeking clues for her location, they call in all the help they can, including that of Levon Greene, an ex-professional American football star, who has tonnes of underground contacts.
At the same time the story of a number of different people come in, these people are illegally imprisoned, and subjected to some rather brutal emotional and physical torture.
Jones and Payne soon end up stumbling upon a much bigger story than just Arianne, with the disappearance of many other people.
After being so disappointed with The Prophecy, I was in a bit of an annoyed mood, and really hoped that this book would be better. I was not to be disappointed again.
I have read all of Kuzneski's books to date, and this was by far the best read. It had all the elements a good book needs, characters you could really get into, parallel stories that you aren't sure of how they connect, and more twists than imaginable.
There were so many points in the story I didn't know what would happen next, how an issue would be resolved, or whether they would even get out of that scrape alive. It was brilliantly written, and proved to be really hard to put down, there was a few nights I ended up staying awake too long, purely because I wanted to read just one more chapter, then another, then another.
The twists in this book were incredible. They were so unexpected, and I was genuinely shocked when they unfolded, the way they were written in was genius, and they fitted in with the book perfectly.
I can honestly recommend this book be purchased immediately, for yourself, for a Christmas present, whatever, if you enjoy reading books like this, then this is bound to be loved. I hoped I was going to like it, but could never imagine having loved it this much. It is no surprise that Chris Kuzneski managed to enter the professional writing market with a story like this, it really is incredible.