Exhibit A: “Orphan X” by Gregg Hurwitz
My complex, confused, and conflicted relationship with Gregg Hurwitz’s Evan Smoak / Orphan X Series began, well, as you might expect – at the beginning. And I mean the very beginning: the dedication page.
To all the bad boys and bad girls, rulebreakers and vigilantes –
[insert long list of action heroes from across the decades here, hitting the excited hell yeah! button of every action hero superstar of my childhood and beyond]
— for being so wicked that they’re good.
All right. Fair enough. As far as dedications go, that one was basically the entire reason I bought the first book in the series titled simply “Orphan X.” Then I dove into the books, and things got… weird. Or more accurately, conflicted.
The Evan Smoak series is without a doubt a love letter written directly to 1986 ten-year-old me. 1986 me pumps his fist in the air, goes “oooh” and “ahhh” and “that was awesome!” while he reads these books.
2018 forty-two-year old me goes “What… the hell… was that?… LOL… oh my… well… ain’t that some shit?”
Two entirely different versions of myself read these books at the same time. And I can’t help it. And I think that’s okay, because these books are the most dizzying study in dichotomy I’ve ever encountered in casual reading. I have never seen a story that can (successfully) take itself so seriously AND blast off like a rocket into utter absurdity on the same page.
These books have become a surreal experience for me. The only way I can describe what it’s like is to let the two halves of me tell their tale. It goes something like this:
[CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Ten-Year-Old Me: Whoa! Did you see that! That was awesome! Pew-pew-pew! BOOM!!! ZOMG! How he did this thing… with his arm… kapow! Oh sweet! Spy gadgets!!!
Forty-Two-Year-Old Me: Huh. So… we’re just going full Cyperpunk tech gadgets here, are we? Hrm… that’s nifty. *turns over the back cover* Is this a near-future sci-fi book? Hrm… nope, doesn’t seem to be. Did I miss something?
Ten-Year-Old Me: Machine guns! Bewbs! HELL YEAH!
Forty-Two-Year Old Me: Hey, super secret assassin man who goes to great lengths to obfuscate your phone and email traffic to keep your lair and identity secret… maybe you SHOULDN’T just take the exotic comms tech you captured off a dead bad guy and… ya know… fire it up and take it out for a spin to see if any of the bad guys will talk to you? I mean, really, who would possibly think of tracking their one-of-a-kind comms tech that you’re playing with like a monkey that discovered an iPhone?
Ten-Year-Old Me: Yeah! Kick the bad guy’s ass! Splosions! He’s got a parachute for his window!!! ( bewbs )
Forty-Two-Year Old Me: Okay… is this… is this a spoof *looks around to see if anyone’s watching me, about to jump out with a camera and shout “gotcha!”
Ten-Year-Old Me: Oh crap! SNIPERS!!
Forty-Two-Year-Old Me: Evan Smoak, you have been captured by the stupidest Bond villain ever… this whole book is just a circus of shark jumps…
Ten-Year-Old Me: More splosions and bewbs!!! Greek bewbs!!!
Now, please, don’t misunderstand me for a second – Gregg Hurwitz lays down a fantastic narrative. Wonderfully composed, well-written, evocative passages are norm for these books. That flies way over the head of ten-year-old me, but forty-two year old me really appreciates Hurwitz’s wordsmithing here. It’s actually quite impressive.
And at the same time, the stories themselves wander off into absurdity that even my inner-ten-year-old looks at a little side-eyed like “Did that just happen? Oh well! BOOM!”
For as keenly written as these books are, they are just over-the-top silly as all hell. Which, to some extent, the dedication of Book 1 should have prepared me for. And it did. But then the author cranked the wild action movie absurdity up to eleven and never looked back. He left skid marks and smoke as he was peeling out, leaflets of action story ridiculousness vomiting out of the windows like tickertape at a parade.
I had to drill down into an interview with the author before I knew whether these books were SUPPOSED to be an over-the-top farce or not:
The TL;DR version: They’re not. He’s a serious as a heart attack about this. Well, okie dokie then. *shrugs in confusion*
But here’s the thing — I STILL LOVE THEM. Ten-year-old me loves them for HIS reasons. Forty-two-year-old me loves them for HIS reasons.
Ten-year-old me would be scraping coins out of the couch and hoarding allowance money like Scrooge to buy Books 4 and 5 when they come out.
Forty-two-year-old me (who has a job, so it’s easier) will show up at the bookstore on release day and buy them as well. He might even buy a copy for the 10-year-old kid from 1986 standing there in a Spuds Mackenzie shirt going “Whoa…. A hardcover! Awesome, mister!”
I suppose me and the kid can read them together. And we’ll probably both be smiling.