But, a weird, double-entendre back cover notwithstanding (a double-entendre which has no bearing whatsoever on the story), River of Flesh turned out to be surprisingly solid. Hardy still has some odd descriptive flourishes in this one (not to mention an overly high opinion of the lethality of 5.56mm), but the writing is generally a tier above what came in his last standalone SOBs title.
The setup is a combination of Agent Orange and the Khmer Rouge. Set while the Cambodian Communists were being pushed back by Cambodians and Vietnamese alike, we encounter a Khmer Rouge warlord named General Kon, who was a sadistic, psychopathic bastard during the Vietnam War. Afterwards, he seems to have only gotten worse.
Barrabas doesn’t know about Kon’s involvement at first; all Jessup has for him is the fact that there’s a huge swath of jungle in Cambodia that is simply dead, and the dead zone is spreading. In keeping with the SOBs’ role as deniable special operations assets, they get tasked with a recon mission. Find out what is going on, and if it’s chemical weapons, find out as much as possible in order to shut it down.
There’s a brief bit involving Barrabas’ girl, Erika Dykstra, who is also an international smuggler (she and her brother got the SOBs their weapons in the first book, The Barrabas Run, in a setup so reminiscent of The Dogs of War that I suspect it was lifted almost whole from that book). She has gotten wind of a plot to steal the treasures of Angkor Wat and sell them on the black market. That becomes the SOBs’ way in, and coincidentally leads to Kon.
Kon’s plot here is worthy of a Bond villain. I won’t spoil it, but he’s basically a psychopath with the means and the will to poison the whole world. The SOBs, of course, have to stop him.
The pacing’s good, the action is decent, and the character threads are continuing through the books. Again, aside from some odd phrasing, it flows well. Far better than Show No Mercy, which was downright painful to read in places.
My theory on that stems from the fact that Gulag War was listed in the back of Butchers of Eden as Book 4. Instead, Book 4 turned out to be Show No Mercy. I suspect that Gulag War wasn’t going to be ready in time, so Hardy knocked Show No Mercy out as quickly as humanly possible, and it suffered for it.
Fortunately, thanks to Michael Mercy’s advice over on the SOBs Facebook group, I gave River of Flesh a shot. It’s definitely a solid entry in the series. Not the best, but I don’t have to wince every time I see Robin Hardy’s name on the author credit for an SOBs book anymore.