The Asian Avenger(The review of 'Livia Lone')

For those following the book industry for the past few years, one thing immediately stands out about Barry Eisler's Livia Lone: it's published by Thomas & Mercer, the thriller publishing arm of Amazon. In fact, Eisler was one of the first few authors signed up by this imprint, back in 2011. His story is one of the success stories in the self-publishing world. The fact that this book is being explicitly released - in print - in India reveals the self-publishing juggernaut's increasing attention on this market. Expect more from the same publisher, coming soon.

But anyhow. On to the actual story. Livia Lone was sold by her parents at the age of 13 to human traffickers and smuggled into the US, along with her younger sister. Somewhere along the way, her sister Nason was separated from her after horrific sexual abuse. Adopted by a businessman who also abuses her, Livia grows up to escape her adoptive family and become a cop. No surprise, she's a specialist in abuse cases and human trafficking - even going outside the law to mete out punishment if she thinks necessary. And she has never forgotten her sister and continues to try all means to figure out what happened to her.

The story opens with Livia plotting to get to the man who'd taken her sister away from her. He's been in jail since then, but has refused to talk. Now that he's being released, she might be able to get some hints of what eventually happened to her. She begins with "arranging" a funeral where members of the same gang show up. At the venue, she uses a mobile surveillance technology to tease out the mobile phone details of the attendees. This reveals the patterns of their life, and there on, she follows the decades-old trail towards the conspiracy that uprooted her life.

To be honest, though, that part of the story is relatively short and formulaic. The more interesting track is the recounting of her past, as she is taken from her village and painfully makes her way to the US. Her struggles are just beginning with her arrival there - she must overcome a lot over the years to finally become a police officer. Some of the abuse she suffers is horrifying to read - the book is not for the squeamish. But we also go into detail into her exploration of martial arts, and her blossoming career as a sportsperson. The recounting of an underprivileged refugee's rise and eventual absorption into society is enthralling.

Livia is not a traditional detective heroine - she's too personally involved in her work  and is too willing to break the law in pursuit of her targets. Think of her more as an avenger with access to official resources. The story of this book isn't just "another day at work" for her, but an epic spanning her entire lifetime. A Manmohan Desai movie, not a James Bond thriller. Put all those together, and you wind up caring for this character a lot more than you would a normal detective. This also means, however, that it's hard to see Livia as a "series heroine" - what else is left for her in life after she's avenged her sister?

At a very high level, the reader will see parallels between Livia and Lisbeth Salander, the anti-heroine of the Millennium trilogy. Abusive childhood, adoption of unorthodox means to fight back, and people unwilling to believe her - it's all there and more besides. But Eisler domesticates the character by setting her in the US among a society that is relatively benign and then letting her take up a 'normal' occupation. I imagine that similar to Salander, the later books in the series will have Livia tackle various social ills related to her "specialisation", which is human trafficking here.

Eisler has a very smooth writing style, with the pacing done just right and the tension gradually building up chapter by chapter. Livia feels relatable, and the references to martial arts and to the various crimes feel well researched. As a tech geek, I'd have liked more details of the phone-tapping infrastructure, but that's probably just me.

Read this book for the heroine, and as a window into a rarely explored sordid world.

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