Hitman: Damnation (Raymond Benson)
Hitman: Damnation is the prequel tie in novel to the upcoming video game Hitman: Absolution, which marks the return of the iconic bald headed assassin to the video game realm after a 6 year absence. This novel promises, and tries to be, many things that it quite simply is not, but when you can overlook the various misfires and ill conceived ideas, you are left with a basic and nonessential Hitman adventure that dovetails right into where I presume the game will start. Because of some unresolved plot points regarding longtime handler Diana Burnwood and references to events that only make sense if you have followed the character, this is a rather difficult read to recommend to people new to the universe, but longtime fans will definitely want to give this a go because it does a mostly great job of staying true to the feel of the universe and features an excellent portrayal of 47's character.
This book features 47's return to the world of professional assassinations after an absence of a few years. We get some insight into his last hit, the attempted murder of a Chinese general gone terribly wrong, and learn about what he has been up to since he barely managed to escape from the last one with his life. More importantly to fans of the series, this hit features the disappearance of series mainstay Diana Burnwood. It is implied in this book that she is being hunted by the Agency, her former employer, for some kind of package that she is in possession of. The details of this are left mysterious but are remarked about quite often. This is certainly something we will see more of in the upcoming game, though its inclusion here is more of a distraction than anything, especially to anybody who just wants a light action novel and doesn't plan on actually purchasing the game. Another misconception about this book stems from the cover blurb: there isn't actually any efforts at all by 47 to strike back at his past and current employers in this book. Again, this is probably something that will happen in the video game, so be aware of what you are really getting: a fairly inconsequential action novel that happens to be more entertaining than it does meaningful for the future of 47's character.
His first major contract after a period of accepting smaller scale hits that are well within his set of skills is the assassination of popular third party presidential candidate Dana Linder, an increasingly popular choice in a country beset by a bad economy, incompetent leadership, and internal strife, including a large militia known as the New Model Army committed to wreaking havoc on the current government. His second target is an even bigger fish: Charlie Wilkins, leader of the Church of Will, backer of Dana Linder and the America First party, fast food entrepreneur, and all around shady character. He goes about these hits with his usual array of lightning quick reflexes, devious animal cunning, and a cold and calculated disregard for the sanctity of human life. All the mainstays of the Hitman franchise are here: 47's iconic Silverballers, disguises to blend in with the environment, and grandiose plans to perform his objectives. This is a stealth first take on the character that any fan of the franchise will enjoy, culminating in a massive spectacle of a finale, but there were two things about the plot that rubbed me the wrong way.
The first is a misguided attempt to add a bit of intrigue. The contractor behind these two high profile hits is entirely anonymous and gives seemingly bizarre and contradictory parameters to complete the tasks. Of course, 47 and his new handlers at the Agency then spend an undue amount of time questioning these motives and the true identity of the person calling the shots. If this turned out to be less predictable, it would have been just a slightly tiresome diversion with a decent payout, instead it turns out to make 47 look like an idiot when the reader can deduce something like this immediately after the motives get called into question. I don't often make guesses about future events in stories that turn out to be anywhere near correct, so when I nail it exactly like what happened with this ridiculous mystery in this book, you know the author has played a bit too fast and loose with the hints. Granted, it's possible that this was actually supposed to be this predictable, but why then would we spend so much time making 47, acknowledged multiple times as the world's greatest assassin, look incompetent because he can't put the pieces together?
The second is actually a decent idea to take 47's character to a new level, but it ends up being kneecapped by an absolutely atrocious fulcrum character. His method to assassinate Wilkins involves going undercover within the religious compound in order to get close enough to perform the hit. While doing this, he becomes friends with a woman named Helen McAdams, who also happens to be Wilkins' secretary. The two grow close, and the previously stoic 47 finds himself experiencing real emotions for the very first time. This is a cool (if somewhat unoriginal) concept, but it is plagued by two major problems. McAdams is a terrible character, especially given her importance in the story. She is a clingy, brainwashed, emotionally unstable, and wholly unappetizing damsel in distress archetype who is far from the type of character needed to pull this kind of story arc off. In her introductory point of view scene, it actually feels more like she is being introduced as a one off character whom is only intended to die by one of the main character's hands, whether it is 47's to showcase his cold and calculated side or Wilkins to show a deprived or ruthless streak that actually never materialized. The second problem is that we never learn how or why 47 becomes emotionally connected to her. It doesn't have anything to do with romance: 47 acknowledges to himself that he has no romantic interest in her and he certainly never tries to flirt with her or anything like that. It most certainly isn't because she is a similar type of person and he relates to her struggles. They never even share a special moment or two of bonding or reflection: they meet numerous times throughout the book, but these exchanges appear to be far more awkward than they are profound. 47 fumbles with social interaction and maintaining his ruse as an Iowan farmer seeking enlightenment through the Church of Will, and Helen seems eager to find someone, anyone, to protect her from something. Luckily, this relationship ends in pretty much the only way that it could, and we are spared the unpleasantness of having to experience Helen McAdams ever again.
Besides the misstep of trying to have 47 experience emotions due to the advances of someone as wretched as Helen McAdams, this is actually an incredibly strong portrayal of the assassin. We are treated to a nice mix of animosity towards the Agency (particularly early on,) cold blooded killing, hardened professionalism, and a struggle with painkiller addiction that manages to be far more relatable than the other character-based sub plot ever comes close to being. Seeing an unstoppable killing machine like 47 suffer from withdraw symptoms that occasionally interfere with his ability to function is a very humanizing moment, and his eventual triumph over these demons brings the character to life in a whole new way. Also appearing in this book are the somewhat expected scenes of 47 as a child in Dr. Ort-Meyer's lab. These scenes don't add a terrible amount of depth to the story, and it is something we've seen a million times. Like the death of Bruce Wayne's parents, these kinds of scenes have been done so many times with this character that it has already started to lose appeal.
The rest of the cast of characters is predictably on the dull side, but that is to be expected in a Hitman novel. There are some completely unremarkable Agency members who form 47's support team and have motives of their own, but otherwise the only characters developed at all (excluding Helen, though she is pretty well covered above) are our antagonists: Charlie Wilkins and the mysterious rebel leader known as Cromwell. Cromwell forms the brawn of the opposition and is your fairly typical badly wounded soldier type, we've seen hundreds like him over the years and nothing he does really makes an impression. Wilkins is a bit more memorable, actually possessing a few sympathetic qualities and being remarkably light on the kind of petty bad guy stuff that most books love to over emphasize. His plan is a bit harebrained, but they usually are, and this character earns some credit for breaking out of the mold of easily disposable bad guys ever so slightly.
Where writing is concerned, this book won't impress, but it also won't distract you with terrible things like recent books I've reviewed (ahem, Splinter Cell: Checkmate.) There weren't any typos that were easily discernible, which is sadly a rather impressive feat, and the language is, if not elegant, competent enough to prevent some of the more awkward scenes from feeling overly cheesy. The defining feature of this book's prose is the transition between 3rd person limited point of view from all of the featured characters, including 47 for roughly half of his passages, and 1st person point of view solely showing 47. This isn't something that usually works very well, and this book is no exception. The transitions are jarring and tend to make little sense, especially when a chapter featuring 47 in 1st person gives way to another chapter featuring 47 in 3rd person. The 1st person passages also have a bit of trouble with 47s voice, making him a bit more self aware than he seems to be from the games and showing a bit more emotion than someone who has supposedly never felt anything should be able to, even early in the book.
If you have any interest in the Hitman universe, you could do much worse than giving this book a go. This is a marked improvement over the last Hitman novel, Enemy Within (which I have reviewed on this site,) and a fairly solid novel in its own right. Despite that, this isn't something that can be safely recommended to fans of the genre or people who don't want to play video games because there are simply too many questions left unanswered about 47, his former handler, and his future relationship with the Agency for this to be a truly satisfying read for that group of readers. The book almost literally ends with an advertisement to go buy the game for the conclusion, but if you are willing to put up with that kind of cheesiness, you can have a fairly good time with this book.