Author: Mel Odom
Title: Renegade
Publisher: Tyndale House

Stories about the war on terror in Afghanistan are a dime a dozen these days, but few can match the sleek, streamlined efficiency of Mel Odom’s latest, Renegade. The second in Odom’s new Called to Serve series, Renegade isn’t as commendable for the new ground it breaks as it is for its suspense and authenticity. Odom also injects some welcome humanity into the treacherous Kandahar backdrop, via his main character, the world-weary Marine Reservist Pike Morgan.

The story opens with Morgan – a drifter type with a checkered past – hiding out in Tulsa, Oklahoma under the care of Witness Protection. Mourning the murder of his partner in crime Petey, Morgan’s biding his time until his next deployment by working in a body shop and keeping an eye on the local drug gangs. Just as he’s drawing the eye of the local police with some vigilante escapades, Morgan’s call comes and he’s whisked to Kandahar. The remainder of the book takes place inside the combat zone as Morgan and several other characters – including Bekah Shaw, the lead in Deployed, the series’ first installment – attempt to keep the peace inside the volatile and frenetic world of fragmented Afghanistan on the cusp of the American troop drawdown.

This one takes awhile to get rolling. Much of the first Act is spent developing Morgan’s inner struggle, coming to terms with the demons of his past and deciding what his next move is. That’s not to say it isn’t compelling, and this ground work pays immense dividends as the story reaches its climax. Odom knows a story that takes its time building a character from the inside out will yield a more satisfying payoff, and this one proves just that in its final pages.

Another wise choice is to hold off on introducing the story’s primary antagonist – radical Al-Qaida operative Zalmai Yaqub – until well into the story, moving his chess piece across the board toward Morgan with deliberate stealth. Even once Yaqub arrives on the scene, Odom is careful not to let his initial moves – which include negotiating with a Russian arms dealer and kidnapping a trio of CIA operatives – reveal his endgame.

Odom is to be commended for the authenticity dripping from the pages here. It’s no secret that Tom Clancy, the master of these sorts of combat zone thrillers – had the Pentagon’s ear when researching his best-sellers. It’s not clear what Odom’s secret is, but his research is evident, whether it’s in his proficiency with military jargon or laying out how a team of Marines would pursue a fugitive through a bombed-out building. His eye for detail means the thrilling set pieces come alive with the sounds of artillery fire and the smell of smoke. The violence level is high, and the body count may turn off some, however.

Morgan’s spiritual quest is dealt with subtly. Because of his dark, rebellious nature, he’s got layers to peel back before getting to the heart of his inner struggle. In that way, Odom is also on point, never reducing the complicated process of redemption to a push-button decision. It’s clear when the story ends that Morgan’s changed in a significant, basic way, but that change is expressed in terms both organic to the story and highly meaningful to the reader.

Whether Odom chooses to continue Morgan’s story for the third book in the series, or shift his lens to another Marine, it’s clear that fans of military fiction who like digging into substantially-drawn characters should be eagerly awaiting it.

*This Article First Published 5/21/2013