In Secret Contract Dana Marton kicks off a four-book series with a very cool premise. Sort of Charlie’s Angels crossed with The Dirty Dozen, Marton’s Mission: Redemption series is about four female convicts who are offered freedom if they come together to take on a secret mission for the government. Unfortunately, this first book works better as setup than a good story in its own right.
At the age of 23, computer hacker Carly Jones was sentenced to ten years in prison for hacking into the CIA’s mainframe. She didn’t do any harm to their system; it was mostly a personal challenge to see what she could do. But in the days after 9/11, the government wasn’t exactly in a forgiving mood and decided to make an example of her. Then, six years into her sentence, she and three other inmates receive an unusual offer. If they agree to work together on a secret mission for the government, their sentences will be commuted. They can know nothing about the mission until they agree to it, all four of them must sign on, and the entire arrangement will be completely undocumented.
Carly gladly signs on, planning on making a break for it at the first opportunity. It won’t be easy with hard-nosed government agent Nick Tarasov watching her every move. When Carly suddenly finds her life in jeopardy, Tarasov starts to stick even closer, and feelings Carly never expected to feel for a man she doesn’t even like begin to form.
The book gets off to a reasonable start in its first hundred pages as it establishes the premise of the series. The author introduces the four female leads while keeping the focus on Carly. Their mission is to take down a notorious illegal weapons dealer named Tsernyakov. Each of the women has a certain skill that makes them key to the mission – not to mention the fact that Tsernyakov is said to have a weakness for beautiful women. There are several scenes from his point of view to set up his character and make it clear he’s a very bad guy. There’s little to no romantic development in this part of the story, but it moves quickly and was interesting enough to hold my attention.
But once the focus shifts to the plot of this particular book, the story loses steam. Given that this is the first of a four-book series, it’s obvious that they’re not going to take down Tsernyakov in this book. Indeed, he disappears for the most part after those first hundred pages, with only a brief appearance late in the book. Instead, the author shifts to what is essentially a filler plot, as someone starts to try to kill Carly. To be honest, I just didn’t care. We have this big, bad evil guy running around, but instead of focusing on him, the story focuses on some random bad guy. There’s really no way for the reader to try to follow along and try to figure out who is trying to kill Carly. It just feels like the author pulls out a character at the end and says, “Oh yeah. He’s the one.” (Although anyone who reads the Cast of Characters in the front of the book will likely be tipped off earlier.) There are some decent action scenes, but the story really isn’t all that exciting or suspenseful. It doesn’t help that the assassin on Carly’s trail seems inept.
The last book I read by Dana Marton had a lot of action and very little character development. This time, the character elements are stronger and actually help save the second half somewhat. Frankly, the interactions between the hero and heroine are more interesting than the suspense plot. Nick has a connection to Carly’s past that intrigued me and the way it played out was nicely done. I also liked some of the exploration of Carly’s character. She was very young when she went to prison and never really had a chance to live, yet she’s also a pretty strong heroine. Her computer skills are very cool and convincing, and the way she examines and reconsiders her past actions is quite effective. Unfortunately, Nick never seems fully formed in comparison. It takes more than 70 pages for the author to offer a glimpse from his perspective and some insight to who he is. Until that point, he just came across like a generic tough guy and I really didn’t care who he was. His backstory is dumped in a few awkward chunks that explain his past without really deepening him.
Secret Contract is an acceptable, but unspectacular, read. The concept is cool and the heroine intriguing, but the plot isn’t strong enough to sustain the length of the book. Hopefully the next books will kick into a higher gear as the team works together to take down Tsernyakov.