Kill Bill. The Fifth Element. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. La Femme Nikita. What do these films/books have in common? Strong, memorable female characters that kick major ass. And I am absolutely thrilled to add The Ballad of Mila by Italian author Matteo Strukul to the list.
Here is what I liked. No matter what the language, Matteo Strukul obviously has mastered the ability to describe scenes in vivid detail. Whether he's illustrating a fight, a person, or trying to inspire a particular emotion, his use of personification and similes will have you pausing to admire such expressive rhetoric. Here are a few examples I found myself highlighting as I read:
"The short blade flew through the air like a hungry tongue, swinging fast in a macabre, shining dance."
"That day, I cried all my tears. All those I had been granted, a lifetime's worth."
"The shiny blue Ford Focus was speeding angrily through roads built over the ancient Roman borders as if it had a grudge against the asphalt."
"She kept moving on her feet, elegant and lethal. She swayed like a reed under the moonlit cloak of a night sky patterned with pale stars."
I also thoroughly enjoyed Mila's journal entries. Once I started the book and realized that the story was not entirely in her POV, I wondered how the author was going to give us Mila's backstory. That is the beauty of her journal entries. Strukul strategically works them in, so that as the story progresses, the puzzle pieces of Mila's life start to click into place. The entries also helps the reader to understand why she sets certain events in motion.
I couldn't help but be fascinated by the whole historical/political backgrounds of the Chinese/Italian criminal empires. The story takes place in Italy and there is no one more corrupt then the Rossano Pagnan. But his days as the most notorious mob boss in Italian history are numbered because Guo Xiaoping, leader of a gang of Chinese assassins have been spreading across the Veneto region. And Guo wants nothing more than to knock Pagnan off his bloody throne. I will be the first person to admit I had no idea that the Chinese had immigrated to Italy and that there was this whole underground war between the two cultures. It's great when a novel entertains you, but it's even more awesome when you learn something, especially when it is unexpected.
I was also impressed with Matteo Strukul's knowledge of weapons, specifically firearms. Heckler & Koch USP Tactical, Knight's Armament Company Silencer, Colt .45, P38 Special, Semiautomatic Glock 17 loaded with 9mm Parabellum bullets, Armalite AR 15 assault rifle-- yeah, just to list a few. And I must say, there is something kind of sexy about Mila knowing and handling some of these deadly weapons.
More than anything else in the story, I absolutely loved our heroine. I know I already said it, but I'll say it again, Mila Zago is totally badass. Some may think that her lack of emotion throughout the story is unrealistic, but just be patient. It's towards the end of the novel that you begin to see some of her vulnerability shine through.
I want to talk about her physical appearance which plays an important part in the book. This is how she is described:
"A bombshell: medium height, red dreadlocked hair, green eyes; sheathed in leather trousers and a tight jacket perfectly highlighting her curves. Breathtakingly hot."
She also frequently wears yellow tinted shades or "specs" which are significant and explained later in the novel. Known as The Red Fury and Red Dread, Mila's physical appearance is so important because it not only serves as a distraction in the very male dominated world she involves herself in, but men take beautiful women for granted all the time, as if a female's beauty can be her only attribute. This makes Mila a lethal enemy...and perhaps later a powerful asset.
Aside from her striking looks, Mila has spent years training, mastering, molding herself into a deadly assassin with one goal in mind-- avenge the death of her father and make those who brutally raped her pay. And God help those who get in her way:
"The Red Fury jumped in the air and kicked him smack in the groin. Ottorino fell to his knees then crumpled to the floor like a puppet broken by a moody child. She didn't waste any time. Took the Heckler & Koch, grabbed him by the hair and dragged him outside like a pig's carcass."
Reading Mila's story reminded me so much of some of my other favorite strong female characters, The Bride in Kill Bill, Leeloo (who also has the reddish/orange dreads) from The Fifth Element, Nikita from La Femme Nikita, and perhaps most of all, Lisbeth Salander from Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Yet while I see bits and pieces of these other women in Mila, Matteo Strukul was still able to create a female character that has unique qualities of her own.
So here is what I had some issues with. There were way too many random, abrupt shifts in character POV. I can handle reading the perspective of Mila and the two main villains, Pagnan and Guo. But for some ungodly reason, the author gave almost every single character in the book their own POV moment. One minute you're seeing things through Mila's perspective, then for 2 or 3 sentences you are her victim, then it shifts to another person in the room, then back to Mila-- and so on and so forth without any kind of warning or paragraph/chapter break. It definitely affected the flow of the story.
While I really enjoyed Guo Xiaoping as one of the villains, I had a hard time taking Pagnan seriously. He is supposed to be this scary Italian crime boss but some of the things he says throughout the story sound completely juvenile such as here:
"Mule, we're in deep doodoo, you should already be at the hospital and instead you start a game of twenty questions?"
Deep doodoo??? Really? From my understanding, The Ballad of Mila was originally a graphic novel, written in Italian. The author decided to expand it into a novel and the finished product was translated into English. While some lines work well in a graphic novel, especially with illustrations to go along with them, others may not translate well and I think that is what the problem is here and in a few other places in the story.
My only other complaint is something that trouble's Mila later in the book that conflicts with her character. There is a scene where Mila has to watch Pagnan feed one of the Chinese gang members to his dogs. She goes as far as saying to herself that, "it was too much, even for her." This, in my opinion, totally contradicts her character. Mila is an assassin, a woman who has chopped off the hands of a man, cauterized the wounds, cut some heads off, put them in bags, and delivered them personally, etc. Yet she can't stomach watching a man being eaten by dogs? Yes, it's disturbing, but her reaction just felt out of character.
The Ballad of Mila is a smart, fast paced thrill ride that has all the elements of a cult classic. Mila is a fierce heroine that may remind you of other famous strong female characters but can stand on her own thanks to author Matteo Strukul molding her with care. My only heads up to potential readers is to remember that this novel was translated from Italian to English and contains some words/phrases that you may not have come across before. The Ballad of Mila is the first book in a potential series. I can't wait to read book 2!