By Ronie Kendig, Barbour Publishing. $9.97.
A twin sister’s resilient, can-do commitment to find her missing brother, a Military War Dog’s affecting loss of a working partner and a tableau of wide-ranging intrigue and vibrant characters produce a wild hybrid of weighty drama and sobering love across an international landscape.
But be prepared: You might need a program to remember the names and “handles” of all the characters, some of whom suddenly appear and others who are reintroduced chapters apart.
In a nutshell, Gunnery Sgt. Austin Courtland disappears after his Army unit is ambushed in Afghanistan and is listed as Missing in Action and eventually declared dead. His sister, Air Force veteran Aspen Courtland, however, is not convinced he is dead and manages to help put a search team together to bring him home dead or alive. After Austin’s disappearance, Aspen adopts Talon, her brother’s traumatized 75-pound, 6-year-old Labrador Retriever working partner that becomes the conduit through her search moving forward.
Heath Daniels, lead trainer at the Texas-based A Breed Apart, praises Aspen, “You’re giving him (Talon) his respect back but also helping him remember he’s a dog – the best life. Your brother would be proud if her were here to see this.” Despite this sugary sentiment, Aspen and Daniels quickly recognize Talon is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is a work in progress.
While the Army was content to write off Austin’s death, a report notes someone closely resembling him is spotted in Northeast Africa, giving Aspen hope he might be alive.
Enter Military Intelligence Operative Dane Markoski, the son of an American missionary and Russian father, who has run from the truth most of his life and has a problem working with women, yet senses an opportunity to make things right. Dane and Aspen find themselves teamed together with Talon in Djibouti, Africa, in quest of Austin through one searing and untamed challenge after another.
As Dane’s hidden angst and haunting background begin to surface his character assumes a mysterious persona when Aspen begins falling in love with him, only to discover late in this brisk-moving narrative his real name and homeland. In the process they technically are married to establish a ruse in Africa during the search for her brother.
After a firefight in Djibouti where Dane is shot and treated, a new gun-toting character, Neil Crane, aka Austin with many cosmetic changes, appears suddenly on the scene. Austin, we learn, was recruited as a prime candidate for covert operations, by Dane, then sent to Sudan as an American military spy, only to encounter a trap, he believes.
As Aspen is suddenly thrust into a war of words and a feeling of betrayal, wondering whom to trust, psychological and physical fireworks fly between the testy pair. Suddenly a percussion grenade is tossed into the room and when the dust clears Aspen is missing, sending Dane on a recovery mission.
As the high-octane tempo intensifies and the scene shifts to St. Petersburg, Russia, familial fights confront Dane, aka Nikol Tselekova, around every corner as he searches for Aspen with the combat tracking team close behind.
Rescuing Aspen comes with a heavy price, as the author leaves the outcome murky down most of the curvy pathway, yet crystallizes it during a final firefight in which Talon plays a key role.
“Talon” is essentially a richly-detailed story of two distant and combustible families whose dynamic paths intermingle with strong characters who produce hate, distrust, love and commitment. In the process, Kendig skillfully connects the far-reaching dots while not undermining the combative tone and vigorous flow from cover-to-cover.