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Book Review: The Outlaws Scarlet and Browne

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

This one gets a 3.5 from me. It does a lot well, but a few parts knocked me out of the story.

First the good. The writing and descriptions were evocative and drew me in. Treks through forests, river escapes, fights with tactics, tense moments, all good. The two main characters were distinct and well drawn and there was plenty of humor in their interactions. And it was a kind of character humor that I like, not jokes or wit, but the humor of knowing how these two characters are and anticipating how they will react in certain situations. I laughed out loud at some parts, real laughs, not just breathing out my nose a little harder because I got the joke.

The bad. On a macro level, the beginning where I didn’t know the characters’ ultimate goals yet the book was interesting. But at a certain point their goals became clear and it was a bit of a let down for me. That’s it? That’s the whole point? A lot became predictable, sidequests were reduced to episodes that didn’t move the needle. The general path was very clear and there were no real surprises.

On a micro level, two things happened that always take me out of the story. Both relate to character ability.

#1: a character, especially a young character, has incredible high level skill that normally takes a decade or so to acquire, but we’re not shown how this character attained or maintains such skill.

#2: a character is shown as extremely capable and demonstrates how skilled/powerful/whatever they are, but they inexplicably lose in a situation they clearly should win -- because the plot requires them to lose.

I'm not talking about where these happen as part of the humor (e.g., One Punch Man), but when the story is taking itself seriously and either of just just happen without explanation. Unfortunately both of these happened a few times in The Outlaws Scarlet and Browne. I will try to minimize spoilers here to protect the innocent, but if you want to read the book completely untainted, skip the next few paragraphs.

There is a character who has combat skills on the level of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes or Denzel Washington’s Equalizer. I'm talking about the type of fighter who looks at a situation with three armed opponents and within seconds mentally plans an eleven move sequence that will leave one opponent unconscious, another on the ground screaming with a broken collar bone, and the third hanging upside down from the ceiling fan slowly spinning. Then executes it to perfection.

The character in The Outlaws is basically a teenager with this level of combat skills. The character regularly defeats, outwits and even kills groups of armed men. The character is a marksman with a gun, one-shot-one-kill. And also a skilled knife fighter. And also as acrobatic as a ninja, scaling walls, jumping out third floor windows, etc. And also an expert at planning and pulling off flawless bank heists. The more elite skills the character kept displaying without any explanation as to how the character got to be so good, the more I shook my head.

Downey Jr.’s Holmes is the result of applying the genius of Sherlock Holmes to combat after Holmes takes up pit-fighting as a hobby. Denzel’s Equalizer is the result of a CIA agent with combat skills honed over decades of experience and he is coming back out of retirement. For the uber-character in The Outlaws I waited for an explanation, a mention of a super skilled mentor, intense assassin training, membership in a martial arts school... something. We get nothing. Just more and more skills. The only thing remotely close to an explanation is the character frequently travels ‘the wilds’. That’s it. Oh, and said character is also an expert at surviving and navigating ‘the wilds’. And expert at dealing with all it’s deadly denizens (abnormally large bears, wolves, etc.).

However, the story was so entertaining and fast moving that I was mostly able to overlook the unexplained skill stacking and enjoy the ride. Until the character was suddenly a complete weakling and got bested by a nobody. I literally had to reread because I thought I missed something. But no. An unskilled nobody in this story completely beats this super character in a straight up, fair fight. The character had more more time than usual to plan out a killer sequence and had serious motivation to win this fight at all costs. I was thinking ‘this nobody is about to get killed, messing around getting in the way of the wrong person’. But instead, for no reason that I could discern... the character lost. Didn’t imagine complex fighting steps to win like usual, didn’t use super weapon skills, just became an entirely different, helpless character for a few paragraphs. It became disappointingly clear later why this reversal happened. For story reasons the character needed to reach a location, and there was no way the character would have known exactly where the location was. So the character loses this fight and gets taken there.

That knocked me out of the story world.

I read on. Tried to overlook it. Once at the location the character reverted to normal hyper skill and dispatched armed opponents again in more complex sequences than ever. But then the rule was broken again, with a different character.

The disappointing. There is a character described as death itself. And indeed the character demonstrates insane power. Yet, when the character could clearly instantly kill a dangerous opponent, instead of doing so the character performs the worst trope imaginable, one that I thought the Incredibles slayed for good: monologuing! I couldn’t believe it. Literally, instead of finishing off the opponent the character explains evil plans, yaddah yaddah, answers pointless questions and -- for no reason at all -- walks toward the opponent and unwittingly (we are to believe) steps into a vulnerable position where an attack would be possible. To be clear, we're talking about an ultimate long distance fighter monolguing while walking straight into the range of a melee fighter for... reasons.

I almost checked out. Watch No Country for Old Men to see how a true villain handles such situations. The deadliness of that man is what made the coin toss scene one of my favorites of all time. We all know what’s at stake for real when this guy is involved!

In short, the big let down on the revelation of the character’s goals and the breaking of a few personal pet peeve rules of storytelling left me a bit uninvested in the characters and the story. To the point, I wouldn't blindly pick up a sequel. But overall the novel was humorous, action-packed and mostly entertaining with good writing. That’s a 3.5.

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