Vengeance by Saima Mir

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Vengeance by Saima Mir

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: A tight and tense thriller set in the heart of a British Pakistani crime network. Clever and impactful with a lot to say, but falls short in some ways.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2024
Publisher: Point Blank
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0861541560

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I was instantly intrigued by the premise of this novel – an organised crime syndicate in the north of England run by a Muslim woman. The fact that it was the second in a series I hadn't read didn't stop me – I've jumped midway into a few series before (on page and screen) and it needn't be a hindrance if it's good enough. And that wasn't a problem here. Vengeance swiftly brings you up to speed, and I never felt lost.

So this is a great premise, and it comes with a great central character – Jia, the titular Khan, head of a major crime syndicate inherited from her deceased father. But the discovery of an old notebook full of unknown names signals that there may be parts of his past that aren't buried. Correspondingly, multiple chapters jump back thirty or forty years to when her father was a young man, gradually unfolding the events of the past as Jia learns about them in the present and struggles to deal with a spate of murders close to home.

It's a pacey story that – in spite of some rich description when it comes to settings and surroundings – rarely lingers too long on any one moment. This isn't always a strength – sometimes I found myself wishing the narrative could slow down and let things breathe a little – but on the whole it works well for the story it's telling. Mir's pacing is carefully cultivated: it's rare for a chapter not to end on a cliffhanger, or on an ominous line which leaves you wanting to know what will happen next.

And despite her unsavoury occupation, Jia is an interesting figure who echoes several other notable lawbreakers in fiction in that she's a character with many personal rules and codes of ethics. She's a complex figure in a way that feels both authentic and unique, compelling despite how ultimately unrelatable she is – you never feel like you're close to her, and yet somehow that didn't stop me wanting to be. On top of that, her complicated relationship with her father – in particular the sense of her failure to fully understand him and her lack of knowledge of his history – overhangs much of the unfolding revelations. Something the book does very well is illustrate how maddening the various moving parts of such an organisation are – there's constant threats to handle, constant problems to be aware of, and constant danger. Multiple times throughout the story, Jia contemplates the possibility of leaving this world behind, each time relenting and carrying on.

Balanced with this are Jia's responsibilities to her family: her children, her husband, her siblings, and her community. What's obvious is how Jia's shouldering of her father's legacy extends to how she relates to her family: she's the head of the family in more than one way, senior to her adopted brother, and the one they all look to for guidance and direction. Similarly, it's striking how inverted her relationship with her husband Elyas is portrayed: of the two, she is the more stereotypically masculine, whereas he is placed in a notably more feminised role – the principle caregiver, the more emotionally sensitive of the two. It's a curious dynamic and one that the book actually spends some time developing, particularly showing the stress her business interests place on their marriage. The book reflects more than once on the often-stifling expectations and double standards women – sometimes with clanging unsubtlety, but they're interesting points to make nonetheless.

For all the interesting dynamics at play, though, Jia and her husband Elyas are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to characterisation. Though Mir makes an attempt to distinguish many of the supporting characters, there's a bit too much telling and not showing going on. Repeatedly, I had the sense of being told what people were like versus actually feeling like I was seeing it. There's a limit to how many times you can say he was like this or she often did that – at times it feels akin to reading character notes rather than actually getting to know anyone. This extends to the narration as well – although brief, there are constant moments throughout where I felt like I was being told how characters felt about things when I didn't need to be; rather, the story itself should have left me to think about this for myself. The dialogue, too, wavers between naturalistic and rather forced – it often reads as though it's written with expediency in mind, concerned more with getting to the point instead of characterising the speaker. It feels in part as though things are mixed up: that all the emotion had gone into the narration instead of the characters' words and actions, and this is a real miss.

Nonetheless, this is a really fun read with a lot of good ideas. There's so much going on here that you can't not get drawn in and swept up into things – it manages to feel very dense for all that it's a relatively slim read with frequently short chapters. And there's definitely the sense that things aren't concluded, so I don't expect Vengeance to be the last instalment in this series. Whether I'm interested enough to follow it on, we'll see.

If punchy, impactful crime thrillers are your thing, you might enjoy reading Her Darkest Nightmare by Brenda Novak – a suspenseful mystery set in the Arctic.

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