BOOK REVIEW: The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Young Adult / Action / Thriller
Since her mother was killed ten years ago, it’s just been Gwendolyn and her father, the man who adopted her when he married her mother. He’s taken her around the world, from country to country, school to school, thanks to his job as a diplomat. As such, he’s pretty much all she has left. She doesn’t really have any friends, and extended family is a non-starter.
Her dad is all she needs. He’s always looked out for her.
I don’t see what happens next because my dad is reaching over the seat and unbuckling my seat belt. He pulls me like a rag doll into the front with him. I remember how rough he was being, how much it hurt when he yanked me between the front seats. He clutches me to his chest like he’s giving me a big hug and leaves through the same door as mom, the door that’s not on fire.
Blows from the clubs and bats rain down on him. I feel the force of the blows traveling all the way through his body. He’s taking them for me, or most of them.
But when she enters into what might quickly become a romantic relationship and is informed her father has gone missing on the same day, her life is set to change drastically.
Now it’s the man’s turn to show his badge and ID, but I don’t need to look at it. I know them already – not these two specifically, but I know their kind, what they do, what it means when they show up. I know the next words out of their mouth before they even say them.
“My dad,” I say, my voice low, almost a whisper. “What happened to my dad?”
She’s set to fall into the role of reluctant female heroine featured in so many books these days.
I pull a book out of my backpack and lean against the door as the train shoots through the tunnel under the river toward Queens. It’s a novel with a teenage heroine set in a dystopian future. Which novel in particular doesn’t matter because they’re all the same. Poor teenage heroine, having to march off to war when all she really wants to do is run away with that beautiful boy and live off wild berries and love. Paper worlds where heroes are real.
But when the Bureau of Diplomatic Security stop looking for her father, and start dragging his name through the mud, she knows that she’s the only one who cares enough to find and save him. She may be just a kid, but she’s determined to step up and help her father.
“My brother and I, we got guns and went to war.”
“You were just a kid,” I say.
“Not after that,” he says, then points to his stomach. “That fear you have, just here, in your belly?”
“It’s just a feeling. Only that. Ignoring that feeling, that’s all it means to have courage.”
In Europe she is in for a steep learning curve, and she’s going to have to forget everything she knows about the supposed rules of society if she’s to save herself from being played, or worse. If she’s to save her father.
I nod that I understand. “I just have to be better than my opponent.”
“Not opponent. Enemy.” She turns, a yellow rubber training knife in her hand. “This isn’t sport. You won’t be breaking boards with your forehead. What you learn here is exactly what we use in Israel to turn the soft dentist’s daughter into an operative who can kill a man with her thumbs.”
The Cruelty has been likened to The Bourne Identity and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as someone who hasn’t read either of those two, it does feel like a pretty good likeness. This is the next in a long line of action thriller books in which there are a lot of fights and explosions, which are easy to read, but are light on the character development side of things if you can stop yourself from being distracted by all the action long enough to look a little closer.
There is a lot of suspension of disbelief required, in that a seventeen-year-old would find it so easy to travel overseas without being stopped when she has people looking for her. That she would progress so rapidly from teenager who doesn’t know what Krav Maga is (a problem in itself, given how many languages she knows and how widely she’s travelled)…
Yael takes a bottle of water from one of the metal cabinets lining the wall and opens it. “The other thing I teach. Krav Maga. Heard of it?”
I shake my head.
… to a killing machine set to bring down a human trafficking ring who tracks done highly potent rat poison to serve as her own DIY, in-case-of-emergency, cyanide pill/poison.
“Manufactured in North Korea,” he says.
“The best?” I say.
I pick the box up and turn it over in my hands. The entire package is yellow and looks like one big warning label with skull and crossbones stamped next to boldface and underlined Korean text.
“Do not handle pellets with bare hands,” he tells me. “Myself, I wouldn’t even handle the box with bare hands.”
I drop it to the counter. “Does it work fast?”
The clerk snorts a little laugh. “A minute. Maybe two.”
“Does it – hurt?”
“They’re rats; they don’t understand pain,” he says. eyeing me. “But if I’m wrong, so what.”
There are quite a few laugh out loud moments and interesting comments made by the characters, and this is a fairly easy read to get into, at least once the overseas action begins.
“Do you mind if I get something out of there?”
“No you don’t mind, or no I can’t get something out of there?”
His eyes narrow with confusion. “No – you cannot.”
“I need a tampon,” I say in English, then with the German pronunciation, “Tahm-pohn.”
He gets the gist and grimaces. “You wait.”
“Not the way it works. I need it quick. Right now. Otherwise it’s going to be very gross for both of us.”
He hoists the backpack and starts rifling through it.
“Make sure it’s not one of the used ones.”
He blinks in confusion, shuffling through whatever notecards he has in his mind on the topic of women and tampons. Then he shoves the backpack at me and brings the muzzle of the gun close to my face. “You get it,” he says. “But do not try anything.”
And it has some nice insight into the hidden and less touristy parts of Europe (or at least it seems that way, to someone who has never been to these places).
Witold drops me off just west of the VItava River within sight of a bridge he says will lead me to the Old Town. “Das Prag, das du dir vorgestellt hast,” he says. The Prague you see in your imagination.
But in the end this is another of those stories in which someone is “taken” and someone else goes vigilante to find them. Yes, in this instance it’s a teenage girl, but the fish-out-of-water song remains mostly the same. There is a challenge and it looks like they are doomed, but in the end they make a transition from naive civilian to badass assassin via a montage that makes it seem as though it happens in a blink.
It’s a good, fun, easy read, and I will definitely continue on with the series, but it’s not earth-shattering, and nothing to write home about.
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