The easiest label to hang on Nick Petrie’s “Burning Bright” is to say that it’s a Child-ish thriller.
That’s a total compliment, mind you.
We’re comparing Petrie and his still-new series character, Peter Ash, an Afghanistan and Iraq combat veteran with a knack for finding trouble, to the great Lee Child and two-fisted Jack Reacher.
And we’re not the only ones who have made this connection.
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Emblazoned across the cover of “Burning Bright,” above the title, is a ringing endorsement from Child himself: “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal.”
He is indeed. Reacher fans, especially those who have consumed all of Child’s novels and are thirsting for more, will find Peter Ash to be a more-than-capable substitute.
The heroes are cut from the same cloth, and their adventures are action-packed from start to finish, but the writing and the characters are different enough that the newcomer doesn’t feel like a copycat.
“Burning Bright” is the second novel featuring Peter Ash. He made his debut last year in “The Drifter.”
Now, stateside after eight years of dangerous deployments, the 30-something decorated Recon Marine is a smart and skilled adrenaline junkie. He’s a man with a code and strong feelings about right and wrong. He’s ever-ready to step in for those in need of a white knight, even if he’s greatly outnumbered.
Alas, this Superman has his own form of Kryptonite: post-traumatic stress that manifests itself as a crippling kind of claustrophobia — or what he calls “white static.” In short, he loses his edge indoors.
Peter’s extreme aversion to enclosed spaces is why he has spent the past two years drifting across America, albeit in not quite as minimalist a way as Reacher goes it.
“Burning Bright” opens with him backpacking alone among the giant redwoods in Northern California. A chance encounter with an aggressive grizzly bear sends Peter scrambling 40 feet up a tree. While up there, he spots a climbing rope dangling from a taller, neighboring tree.
Peter, always being up for a new adventure, decides to find out what’s on the other end of that rope. That leads him to a hidden platform hundreds of feet up at the top of the forest canopy and straight into the life of June Cassidy, a young woman on the run from a team of muscle-bound mercenaries.
The bad guys claim to be Department of Defense agents, but they’re clearly not. They’ve already killed her mother, a brilliant software designer who developed a self-learning skeleton-key algorithm that could become a game-changing hacking/information-gathering/espionage tool.
Now they’re after June, a journalist, because they think she can give them what they want.
Peter has nothing better to do — and besides, June is awfully cute — so he becomes her protector and takes on an army of bad guys, which includes one particularly ruthless lone-wolf killer.
The first quarter of the book is a roller-coaster adventure in an almost literal sense, a fast and dangerous chase that begins with a zip-line ride from tree to tree and ends with a wild auto pileup and shootout along a desolate forest road. It’s what Peter thinks of as “a pretty interesting day.”
Once we finally get a moment to catch our breath, the story morphs into a complicated high-tech conspiracy thriller that fans will find both surprising and comfortably familiar.
The biggest complaint that faithful Lee Child fans have about his Reacher novels is that we read them much faster than he can write them. So it’s nice to have somebody new like Petrie, somebody who’s a very talented writer to boot, to help us endure the wait till our main man drifts back into our lives.
“Burning Bright” by Nick Petrie; G.P. Putnam’s Sons (429 pages, $26)