A few months ago I received an email from a gentleman asking if I would be interested in reading his new novel. I love e-mails like this because - being broke most of the time - I seldom get a chance to read everything I would like, particularly anything gun-related. Shortly afterward, the book arrived with an intriguing hand-written note on the inside of the jacket: "Sooner or later, in our own way, we are all tested." This immediately piqued my interest. One can read many meanings into that statement. It can apply to so many situations and experiences. An interesting way to sign a book, indeed.
The cover photograph featured a Model 1911 variant in competition trim resting in what appeared to be a Kydex holster. Some IPSC targets lay beneath the handgun, appropriately perforated with multiple head-shots. I thought to myself, "The author obviously knows of me because of my link to Sniper Country, so why does he want me to a review a novel about IPSC shooting?" This misperception caused me to let the book lay for about a week, until my wife became engrossed with it. "Hmmm," I thought. "If she is reading it, the thing must be good." My wife is miserly with her time, and will put a book down after an hour if it does not grab her. "Must be something more to this book than meets the eye," I decided.
And so there was. B-Zone: A Novel of the Gun is Mr. Voth's first attempt at a fictional novel. Reading through the first pages, you soon come to realize that this is not your average work of fiction by a person outside the shooting community; someone who uses firearms as props to further their plot, but has little actual interest in or knowledge of them. Thankfully for the reader, Al Voth knows firearms as well as any of us. He is both a competitor and a hunter, is a former member of an Emergency Response Team, and is currently working in a forensics lab. It's always refreshing to see an author put a level of detail into his work that indicates a true love of the gun, and I'm happy to say that Al Voth does just that. Much to my amazement, I even laughed out loud when he correctly used the term "magazine" instead of the time-honored BONEHEAD mistake so many well-known and respected authors make: "clip." Obviously, Al is a shooter first and author second. You will find no glaring errors of firearms nomenclature here!
To my great joy the book had little to do with competitive shooting, although it did play an important part in the plot. Don't get me wrong. I love competition. And when I am not being lazy, I like to compete (IDPA being a favorite venue). Al used his familiarity with competitive shooting sports to lend a level of authenticity to his plot not usually found in works of this type. If you have had any firearms training at any of the well-known training facilities in the US, you will feel like you are revisiting them in the camaraderie and action that the author portrays. Every school, class, or competition I have attended FELT the way they are portrayed in the book. The thoughts as you approach the line, the concentration and zone you enter before the buzzer rings, the satisfaction you derive from a scenario well performed. It all rings true in both the competitive and instructional aspect. Few authors put this level of familiarity into their work.
The plot itself is quite interesting, simple, and yet well paced. It takes several turns that keep you reading right through the evening and into the night. I am NOT going to let you in on the plot beyond saying it starts out with an IPSC competitor vying for a sponsorship and ends with the same individual working in a VERY interesting job that has little to do with competition. In fact, the idea the plot is based on seems like something that should be attempted in real life - and probably has, somewhere. It makes sense! So, you will have to BUY this book to find out what I am hinting at. It is a work of fiction after all, and I would not want to ruin it for you. Let's just say if you appreciate action novels dealing with criminals, Emergency Response Teams, and firearms training, you will certainly enjoy this work. It is fast paced, accurate, and manages to put you right into the characters' minds with comfortable ease.
There were several areas where I would have liked to see more development, but I think I understand why these were probably left sketchy: PAGE COUNT. To explain; I have seen several first attempts at writing where the author has to keep a book under a certain page count and therefore cannot fully develop all aspects of a scene without losing space for the main plot. Enriching details have to be weighed against page count. In B-Zone, part of the scenario has the main character attending various firearms training classes in pursuit of a specific goal. The plot moves along quickly in these areas, and some potentially interesting detail was brushed aside that I would liked to have seen explored further. Yet, as I read the words, it was quite obvious that Mr. Voth knew the material intimately. My feeling is that, given a greater page count to work with, he would have been able to delve deeper into the minutia of the subject without losing the pace of the novel. The book does not suffer for this lack of training specifics; it only leaves one wanting more. Kind of like that first Pringle you eat out of the tube... you know there are more there and WANT them NOW.
I could easily see this work taking on another 50 pages just on the kind of detail that gives avid shooters and trainees big smiles. The work stands up quite well as-is. I am picking nits here. But in the process of giving the reader a measure of detail most non-shooting authors leave out, Mr. Voth leaves you wanting more. He will probably laugh at me for saying this; but see? This is what you get when you do it RIGHT! REAL SHOOTERS WANT MORE OF THE SAME! If you spoil us early with accurate firearms speak, we'll keep looking for that extra tidbit we just know won't appear in works from a non-shooting author. At 244 pages, B-Zone could have gone to 350 with ease in this sized typeface.
Nevertheless, B-Zone is a gripping story that does not suffer for the occasional lack of certain training details. I certainly would have liked to see more comments in the section delving into the mindset of those under stress. It is a fascinating topic and, while the author touches on it, many readers who are not familiar with the way the brain functions under stress (like a gun fight) miss out on a lost chance to educate themselves and be entertained at the same time. The topic is an old had for those who have been through any tactical handgun course, but I feel it can never be expressed enough to those who would carry a gun for self-defense. Like I said, I am picking nits. In and of itself, the work effectively places you in the world of the main character and, if you have taken any advanced firearms training, you really know what Voth is referring too.
B-Zone: a Novel of the Gun is, in my opinion, an excellent first novel. My comments about more detail development aside, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the culture of firearms ownership that we, as readers, inhabit. It feels real, tastes real, and leaves you wanting more. If you have attended advanced handgun training or competed in any of the defensive pistol sports, you will feel like you are attending a homecoming as you read these pages. I expect that Voth's second novel will be a continuation of the first. There is much room for future plots and I, for one, cannot wait to see them develop. My impression is that Al Voth has launched himself on a new career, and in the future you will be seeing his work growing into a series specific to the main character of this book, Nathan Burdett. Like many other action adventures, Voth keeps the pace well. The defining difference here is that Voth actually gets the details he chooses to include RIGHT. Well done!
Sniper Country gladly recommends B-Zone: a Novel of the Gun and looks forward to future sagas from Al Voth. And for those of you who like long range shooting, there is one scene in this work you will particularly enjoy!