Book Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (August 3, 2021)
Length: 16 hrs and 57 mins
Stephen King books can be hit or miss with me, which is why I don’t often pick them up right at release, preferring to hang back to see what other reviews are saying before I take the plunge myself. With Billy Summers though, I broke with that trend. Maybe it’s because I had a rather good run with the last few King novels I read, or the fact that the synopsis to this one sounded a bit different from what I was expecting. In any case, I became too overconfident, and in hindsight I probably should have passed on this one. Admittedly it wasn’t a complete miss, but personally speaking, it was also far from anything I would call a hit.
The eponymous protagonist of Billy Summers is a former sniper in the Marines and a veteran of the second Iraq War. Ever since leaving the military, he’s been making a living as a killer for hire, making a name for himself as being the best in the business because he always delivers. His only rule? The target must be a truly bad person, because he will not go after innocents.
When we find Billy at the beginning of this story though, he has come to grow weary of the assassin’s lifestyle and is contemplating retirement. However, as these things always go, there is one last job, and it’s a doozy. Not only is the client paying $2 million, the biggest offer Billy’s ever received, the hit will also require him to go undercover for months in a small conservative town, living under a whole different identity. There will also be lots of challenges in the way, but if he can pull it off, the money will set him up for life.
And so, Billy moves into the quiet neighborhood his clients have arranged for him under the guise of being an author looking for a quiet place to work on his new book. But with months still to go before the big hit, there’s a lot of downtime, and even though his new identity is only a cover story concocted for the job, Billy thinks, what the hell, and decides to try his hand at this whole writing thing anyway. As a result, what we have here is something akin to a novel within a novel, the present story featuring embedded snippets from Billy’s work-in-progress which is essentially an autobiographical account of his life.
I confess, my feelings were all over the place with Billy Summers. There were some really good parts, but then plenty of low points as well. Since most of the positives were towards the end of the novel, I’ll begin with the negatives. Stephen King books are a lot of things, but rarely are they tedious or dull, which is why I was shocked at how often I found myself bored and my attention drifting off with this one, especially since I was listening to the audio. After a strong intro, the momentum simply petered out, perhaps not surprisingly coinciding with the chapters where our protagonist’s own life story was just starting to take shape. I have to say, I did enjoy the early sections where Billy recounted his childhood which included the tragic circumstances around his little sister’s death. This terrible event would eventually shape the man he’ll one day grow up to be, playing into many of his actions and motivations in the second half of the novel.
However, I was much less impressed with the “war story” part of Billy’s novel. These sections were overflowing with war movie tropes and felt very much like a narrative cobbled together using a bunch of scenes from some of the most iconic war films ever made. Coming from King, this heavy reliance on clichés was somewhat disappointing, not to mention some of the inaccuracies, particularly when it came to certain details like military terminology or weaponry. On the whole, what probably should have been the most compelling chapters of the novel focusing on the protagonist’s service in Iraq ended up being the sections I wanted to skip over the most, which was beyond frustrating.
But what floored me the most were the circumstances around Billy’s first meeting with Alice, a young woman with whom he forms a fascinating and unique bond. To be fair, I loved her character, and as a duo, the two of them would go on to share some incredibly harrowing and also touching moments on the page together. Still, that doesn’t really change the iffiness of those early scenes, and without having to reveal any spoilery details, I’ll just say there were overall some problematic issues in the portrayal of certain topics, including trauma victims and rape. There was just an “off” vibe to it all that left a bad taste in my mouth.
Fortunately, the ending was pretty good, but alas, rather predictable again, robbing it of any surprise. Like I said, this book wasn’t all bad, and I didn’t dislike it. There was always enough intrigue and an entertainment factor that keep me going. But still, even after you take into account all that was positive and done well, it’s impossible to ignore everything else that went awry—uneven pacing, the drawn-out lulls where not much happens, as well as the predictability of the plot and overabundance of clichés, etc. I’m sure Billy Summers will find tons of fans, as Stephen King novels never fail to do, but overall I can’t really say it did much for me.