In his debut novel The First Bayonet, Steven Hildreth, Jr. tackles kinetic action head on. It’s an urgently paced action thriller that never lets up, sometimes to its detriment as a rugged, sassy read.
Hildreth is an Army veteran who deployed to Iraq, and it shows. The novel’s rich with military hardware details down to the millimeter. Dialogue dives in to spec ops lingo and headset protocols. The attention to details gives the action heft and should please aficionados.
Central character Ben Williams is a retired special operations machine of a man who has turned to clandestine mercenary efforts. He’s hired to rescue Zaina, a fiery Egyptian intellectual and agitator, from an Egyptian prison and exfiltrate her from Mubarak’s oppressive state.
The novel’s set in 2006, well before recent tumultuous events in Egypt, which Hildreth leans on for whiffs of discontent and heavy-handed mukhabarat (secret police) activities. It is a tense, violent, and tough-as-nails book. Hildreth propels his hero from one impossible mission to another, and that hero shoots, punches, races, and chokes his way through each one, collecting an incredible body count along the way.
Williams is something of an intellectual himself, but unapologetic about his “direct action” approach. He doesn’t quite earn the warrior-poet mantle, but he’s no blunt instrument.
The book touches too briefly on much needed softer scenes as Williams and Zaina discuss politics and philosophy, cleverly bantering with one another through thoughtful references and a taste for cigarettes. Through Zaina, Williams almost reveals himself. But, readers are left with too much perfect action and too little insight into what makes Williams tick.
But, hard action waits for no man, especially not Colonel Agha. He’s the counterintelligence mastermind who pursues Williams throughout the novel, coolly directing his torture at particularly tough point of the book. Hildreth constructs a suitable villain for his man of action, and Agha’s progression from respectable spy-hunter to rage-blinded avenger is the best character writing in the novel.
When the dust settles and smoke clears, Hildreth accomplishes what he set out to do. It’s a hard-edged page turner that raises no questions or doubts about its too-accomplished hero. The result is a work this reader respects but wants to see a crack in that hero’s armor and a pause on that body count.
The First Bayonet by Steven Hildreth, Jr.: ★★★