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Onyx reviews: Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 5/6/2017

In The Second Life of Nick Mason, Steve Hamilton introduced an unlikely hero—a man freed from prison for a crime he didn't commit, thanks to the intervention of fellow inmate and criminal mastermind Darius Cole. In return, Mason must do Cole's dirty work—for the next twenty years, which was the amount of time remaining on his sentence. Even though he's set up in a posh Chicago townhouse, gets a healthy monthly stipend and has access to whatever tools he needs to complete his missions, he's not free. He's an indentured servant, on 24-hour call by the kingpin, kept in line by threats against his ex-wife and young daughter, and anyone else who becomes important to him.

In the follow-up, Cole forces Mason to become involved in increasingly audacious and dangerous schemes. A new trial is scheduled that could free Cole, especially if the witnesses against him, currently members of the federal Witness Protection Program, are taken out of play. Although no one has ever killed someone in WITSEC before, Mason is sent after these witnesses, one at a time. Someone on the inside is providing crucial strategic information that allows Mason to waltz into secure locations and take out the people who testified against Cole at his first trial. 

Even though he's killing people, Mason has a code of conduct: he uses non-lethal force against anyone who stands between him and his victim. Members of law enforcement may be badly injured, but they won't be killed, at least not by his hand. Naturally, this makes his task more difficult, but it's Hamilton's way of making a killer more palatable to readers. Mason may have been innocent of the murder for which he was sent to prison, he's still a criminal, albeit a non-violent one with a heart of gold, especially when it comes to his 9-year-old daughter. 

His transition from a small-time criminal to a reluctant killer to a full-fledged assassin with James Bond skills is a little difficult to accept, though. He faces increasingly high odds against successfully completing his assignments, but he manages to outgun and outmaneuver numerous highly skilled opponents, albeit not completely unscathed.

All the while, he's conceptualizing his exit strategy, a way to get out from under Cole's thumb while keeping those he loves safe. That's not an easy task, and not everyone in Mason's small circle of friends and allies will survive the book.

If Cole's scheme succeeds and he is released from prison, what will become of Nick Mason? Complicating Mason's plans is Eamon Burke, a ruthless assassin with even greater killing skills than him, a Terminator-like Irishman who's aware of Cole's plan and is determined to get his revenge.

Hamilton keeps up the pressure and the pace, and there's little time for serious character development in this second book. Readers entering the series with this novel will have missed out on some of the greater depth in the first book and may have less sympathy for Mason. And just when it looks like Mason might be clawing his way out of his personal abyss, a new revelation sends him reeling and sets up the follow-up.

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