Dark Horse: An Orphan X Novel (Orphan X, 7)
“Dark Horse is a violent drop-kick to the sensibilities.”
What a cliffhanger!
When last we saw our intrepid hero Evan Smoak, the Nowhere Man, formerly known as Orphan X, he was flying out the window of his penthouse condo-slash-Fortress of Solitude as it exploded into smithereens behind him. If the blast hadn’t already killed him, the fall certainly would.
It’s with breathless anticipation, then, that we tear into Dark Horse, the seventh installment in Gregg Hurwitz’s bestselling thriller series, to find out whether or not Evan somehow miraculously survived the destruction of his beloved retreat.
Before we know it, we’re hip-deep in another adventure as our hero—still alive!—is drawn into a war between rival drug-dealing kingpins, one in South Texas and the other in Mexico. And when Anjelina, the daughter of Aragon Urrea, is kidnapped by his Mexican rival, Raul Montesco, Aragon calls the Nowhere Man for help.
But will Evan Smoak come to the aid of a complex man who does bad things, although often for good reasons?
Dark Horse is aptly titled, as it presents a distinctly darker landscape than previous stories in the series. One of the hallmarks of Evan Smoak’s adventures has always been the element of fun running just below the surface. We enjoy Evan’s eccentricities, we smile at his awkwardness around neighbor Mia and her son, Peter, and we laugh at the impertinence of his computer whiz protégée, Joey, and her big Razorback dog.
This time out, however, there’s not a lot of fun. His home needs to be completely rebuilt and it’s stressing him out; his obsessive-compulsive disorder is over the top, drowning out the more engaging elements of his personality; Mia is in serious trouble well beyond his ability to help her; and the bickering between him and Joey is excessive and very, very off-putting.
All of the above, of course, aligns with the author’s thematic objectives. When Anjelina thinks to herself that “hell wasn’t a faraway place in another realm . . . It was here,” Hurwitz echoes the declaration of Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus that “this is hell, nor am I out of it!” And when Ethan thinks to himself that the mission has become “a journey through the underworld,” wow, you’d better believe he’s not kidding around.
Literary allusions dominate the story. Ethan’s descent into the Mexican stronghold of the Dark Man, Raul Montesco, to find Anjelina recalls the journey of Orpheus into the underworld to rescue Eurydice. References to The Tempest are sprinkled here and there, and when Ethan reflects late in the novel that he would shortly begin “his journey into the heart of darkness,” we can add Conrad to the growing list.
(It’s always important to remember that Gregg Hurwitz is not only a bestselling author of thrillers, he’s also a Shakespearean specialist with degrees from Harvard University and Trinity College, Oxford. While his academic background often peeks through in his novels, it occupies center stage in this one. At full volume.)
While carnage abounds throughout, the chapter in which the peotagonist enters the drug-filled trap house in San Bernardino in search of answers is the absolute nadir, a deliberate evocation of The Walking Dead with zombie-like addicts tearing themselves to pieces as they overdose on a bad batch. Later, as if we need more of this stuff, a Mexican street dog jogs past Evan with a human arm in its mouth.
There’s more, much more, but by now you get the picture. While we understand that reality is frequently very grim, at the same time we’ve grown accustomed to this author’s ability to entertain as well as give us pause to think about the nature of badness and the importance of correcting it. In this one, however, the author and his protagonist are definitely not in a happy place.
We’re really very glad that Ethan Smoak is back, alive and well (sort of), but Dark Horse is a violent drop-kick to the sensibilities, not a terribly pleasant read, and Ethan’s lighter moments unfortunately fail to lessen the oppressive gloom.
One can only hope that our hero’s next outing is somewhat less dark. Maybe just a little.