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The Knife Hardcover – February 5, 2015
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“This debut novel about a special operations team leader—by a former solider in a Special Operations Command unit—is part thriller, part meditation on the ambiguities of war.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"The book’s sense of authenticity is impeccable. The larger experiences of comradeship and loss, the ineffable questions of morality and complicity in combat — these issues will resonate with men and women far beyond the special operation’s community...This isn’t a novel to be overlooked because it searches into the searing and ambiguous lives of those fighting through multiple combat deployments; it’s a novel about the world we actually live in." --Brian Turner, The Washington Post
"This first novel looks at bravery, comradery, futility and deception and indicates that the writer, a former soldier, has skill and potential. His tale of Shaw and his men, who must find the center of a terrorist cell, is exciting and emotional." —Military Times
“Army veteran Ross Ritchell’s debut novel, The Knife, cuts deep to the core of modern warfare, in all its complexity and moral ambiguity…A gripping page-turner.” —New York Daily News
“The National Book Award went to Phil Klay, a writer who used his experiences as a veteran in his fiction…but now a new writer, also a veteran, is giving Klay a run for his money...Ross Ritchell’s THE KNIFE..reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried…. it’s the best novel yet about life at the point of the knife, in these times of overlapping foreign wars.”
--Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered"
“In 2014, the short stories in Phil Klay’s ‘Redeployment’ were heralded as some of the most authentic wartime writing in our ever-changing post-9/11 world. In 2015, ‘The Knife,’ another literary masterpiece, deserves the same praise for its portrayal of valor and the horrors of war...Ritchell, a former soldier who participated in classified special operations missions in the Middle East and now lives in Evanston, uses personal experience to write a novel that paints war as a complicated, exhausting, gut-wrenching ordeal. It gives Ritchell’s story a richly personal and organic sensibility.” –Chicago Tribune
"Ritchell, a former special operations soldier, explores both the macho swagger of these hardened soldiers and their more introspective moments in an almost journal-like manner...while not short of action scenes, the novel is at its best when it probes the soldiers’ misgivings about the job they’re asked to do and the fine line between killing enemy combatants and murder that can exist in a battle zone where civilians and soldiers are intermingled. A simultaneously tough and thoughtful work." —Library Journal
"Raw, authentic and deeply moving, this is a stunning debut."—Rene Denfeld, author of The Enchanted
"The most gripping and thought-provoking novel I've read this year, The Knife will enchant, move, and haunt its readers. Ross Ritchell's gritty prose is stunning, and his painfully human characters linger in the mind. The Knife is a powerful meditation on war and man, told by a remarkably gifted novelist."—Michael Koryta, New York Times bestselling author
Former Army Ranger and combat veteran Ritchell delivers a war story about the mind-numbing periods of waiting, the stress of battle fatigue, the ingeniously idiotic ideas that fill downtime and the spine-tingling moments when life is ever so fragile...Ritchell describes night operations, "snatch and grab"s and the elimination of HVTs (High Value Targets) without false bravado, while still broadcasting the immense skill possessed by these soldiers. He draws the high drama and moral complexity of the Rangers' life on the front lines from a place of narrative distance, allowing the reader to fill in the unstated emotions of Shaw and his team, giving their story great poignancy. A beautiful book about the soldiers who sit on the front lines of the U.S. military machine. —Kirkus
"Ross Ritchell has written a compellingly authentic debut novel. It’s uniquely haunting effect arises in part from a dissonance between the clarity of both its action and the immediacy of its telegraphic prose, and yet, at the same time there’s a convincing sense of disassociation, a shadow of shocked, repressed emotion."—Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago
The Knife is intimate immersion in a squad of soldiers in a war zone. It is funny, disgusting, warm and terrifying, by turns or all at once. It is beautiful. Honest. Heart breaking. —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
About the Author
Ross Ritchell is a former soldier in a United States Special Operations Command direct-action team conducting classified operations in the Middle East. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he earned an MFA. He lives with his family in Illinois.
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The knife that is the tool being used in The Knife, the debut novel by Ross Ritchell, is a five man special operation force in Afghanistan. They are a precision team that makes surgical strikes, cutting away at the enemy. The team is led by Shaw, on his tenth deployment, and includes Massey, Hagan, Delonna, and Cooke. They're are likable young men that, except for being drawn together by war, would probably never have become friends, never even met.
The novel is an account of the team and their work. Told in the third person, the prose is both poetic at times:
"Besides someone having an interesting mustache or getting whacked in their underwear, the kills weren't worth much of a second thought. Holding a weapon? Two in the chest. Strapped with a vest? Two in the head. If he'd wait a second longer it'd be him on the floor leaving into the ground, or one of his buddies. Maybe a building full of people. It was work. Living over life, way of the knife."
and remarkably objective and unemotional at others:
"They got all four of the Pups...Lion1 was upstairs in bed with is wife, an AK loaded and lying between them. He got two shots off on Ohio before Mike killed him, and then the wife picked up the rifle and Mike had to put two through her middle. It happened fast."
The cadence is slow and dark, whether telling about one of their operations, their constant training, or Hagan's sexual proclivity. It is not bogged down with explanations for the military slang and acronyms throughout the book. (A glossary at the end will help ease confusion if necessary.)
There is depth and development of characters, but it seems to come from dialogue:
"Sky's pretty," Hagan Said. He spat over the lip of the roof. "Too bad the rest of the county is such sh*t." It's not sh*t, Hog," Massey said. "...cell leaders and pricks just cr*p all over it and then we come over and piss on it some more and then everyone wonders why it's such a sh*t country. It's not...It's a place full of people that wipe their a$$ess with the land for God, oil, or country--whatever the f#&k--and wonder why it stinks so bad. The land is beautiful. We're sh*t." He shook his head. "I'd want to be buried in a country this beautiful."
That the story is told objectively does not mean that readers will not feel emotion, they will, very
powerful ones that are certain to include laughter, tears, love, disgust, and everything else that one might expect when spending time in a war zone with five soldiers. But the emotions will be a reaction, raw and powerful, originating from within the reader, not prescribed by the author.
Many war novels are abstract, filled with symbolism to be interpreted by every reader, by inner narratives that share the struggles of combat and reactions to it. That The Knife is so simply told is what makes it more powerful and is what sets it apart from many of the others.
If it's true that authors write what they know, then Mr. Ritchell knows more about war, death, and killing then any man should. Thank you for sharing it.
The Knife is full of action and every one of the missions in the book is full of suspense until the very end. The special operators in the novel fight the terrorist group al-Ayeelaa. Al-Ayeelaa is fictitious, but it represents the continuous changes that Islamist terrorism in general, and Al-Qaeda specifically, have gone through over the years. The Knife was written before the rise of ISIS, but the establishment of al-Ayeelaa in the novel almost foretells ISIS. In The Knife, Ritchell mentions that there will always be terrorists to hunt and kill, but that we will never be able to hunt down and kill them all. The moral of The Knife is that there will always be violence of evil men, but that the cure for this never-ending violence is violence by righteous men. Violence by righteous men isn't a cure-all of course, but we have no other choice if we want to stop the violence of evil men. This is why the men and women of the military, especially the infantry and special operations, do what they do. This is why Ross Ritchell and his "boys" did what they did when he was an Army Ranger. This is why the special operators in The Knife do what they do.
But character development in The Knife is at least as important as, and maybe even more important than, action is. Due to the hellish reality and moral ambiguity of even just wars, the special operators in The Knife experience inner moral conflicts. Dutch Shaw, the protagonist of the Knife, is the leader of a team of special operators. The four men whom Shaw leads are Hagan, Massey, Dalonna, and Cooke. Shaw and his men represent common personalities in the military. Shaw and Massey are serious leaders all of the time and are married to their military careers. But they eventually want to have a family in the future and maybe even a second civilian career as well. Like many others in the military, Massey often looks toward toward the future to his post-military life. Shaw has been through a lot with his parents having died when he was a baby and his grandparents who raised him now also deceased. Shaw has been married to the military and depended on his brothers ever since he joined, because he needs them just like anybody needs a family, whether it's blood or not. As Shaw is the protagonist, the reader actually experiences Shaw's inner moral conflict right along with him through his solution to his conflict at the end of the novel.
Hagan is a horny goofball, big kid, "man-child" or, as Ritchell also describes him, "a bruiser, brawler, and womanizer" during his free time. But Hagan is fiercely loyal to his brothers, is super serious when he's on a mission, and most of all he's a "softy underneath." However, Hagan is just the way he is, because war is hell. Like many men in the military since time immemorial , he needs to blow off steam during his free time, because he never knows when he might not be coming back from battle. Dalonna is a consummate family man who constantly misses his family and is torn between them and his military career. Like many family men in the military, Dalonna often agonizes about problems with this family, which could potentially negatively affect his performance during training and on missions. Cooke is a bit of a loner, distant toward other people, and difficult to get to know. But when he's on the job, Cooke is dependable and loyal. Like many people in general, and people in the military and intelligence specifically, Cooke just wants to keep his work and personal life separate.
As we approach Veterans' Day, everybody should buy and read The Knife by Ross Ritchell. Read the Knife so that you can remember and be more cognizant of the sacrifices that our men and women in military uniform who have deployed to Afghanipakiraqistan--as Hagan calls that stretch of Earth in the Knife-- have had to endure. Remember that some of them have had to make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom as freedom isn't free!
P.S. I got the chance to listen to Ross Ritchell talk about the The Knife at a forum at the San Antonio Book Festival, which was awesome! I hope that I get to eventually hear him talk about the sequel to the Knife because there needs to be a sequel, or maybe even a prequel! Because there is so much good material that could be written about Shaw and his comrades! In the Knife, Shaw is on his tenth deployment of his career--he joined the military right after the 9/11 attacks-- and he's on his fifth deployment with his current team. The other four team members have been in the military for years too!