Archive for June 8th, 2014
A solid first entry into the world of international spy thrillers, Martin Lessem’s debut novel, A Cloud in the Desert, is the first entrant into the Steven Frisk series and offers twists, turns and international espionage to sate the reader’s thirst.
The book opens up with a clandestine meeting in Washington, D.C., regarding an ongoing mission currently taking place along the contested Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Pakistan appears to be ready to move into Afghanistan, and there are few assets “on the ground” in the region that the CIA can rely on, Fortunately for them, one of their best and brightest, Officer Steven Frisk, is on location. But there are other elements at play as well, including some shady individuals who are letting a live nuke “go into play”, as it were.
Frisk, however, is not alone in his attempts at stopping what could turn into a nuclear event in Afghanistan. His junior agent in the field, Ali Hassan Ashwari, code-named “Desert Fox”, is also a CIA operative and working deep undercover in Afghanistan. Together they must work to stop a deep, dark attack which could plunge the region — and possibly, the entire world — into a nuclear war.
Part of the strengths of this book is the author’s intimate familiarity with the streets of London (flashback scenes) and Foggy Bottom, home to the CIA. He paints the scenes here with detailed strokes, masterfully bringing you to the actual location without taking the reader out of the book. His characterization of Frisk as a more action-oriented Jack Ryan (of Tom Clancy fame) is fairly solid, though parts of him are too good, as it were. Frisk, while struggling to complete his mission, does not seem to have any normal flaws that people have. Overall, though Frisk is believable hero, even if he is somewhat overshadowed (in this reviewer’s opinion), presence-wise, by his junior agent, Ali Hassan Ashwari. There is also a noted hat-tip to David Weber and his Honor Harrington series in the book as well, which caused me to chuckle a bit.
There are some weaknesses in the book as well. Part of it is an inconsistency towards technical details, such as “Her Majesties” instead of “Her Majesty’s” (he meant possessive, and used plural). His imaging of the Middle East is not as rich and refined as his scenes of London and Foggy Bottom were (which is understandable). There was a bit too much “I’m going to slap Frisk upside the head because he doesn’t see this coming from a mile away!” moments throughout (if the reader can pick up on a few subtle hints about things that are going down, then a seasoned CIA FSO should be able to spot it as well).
Reviews like this are difficult, because one can’t give too much into detail without revealing massive plot points. However, I can say that, given time and patience, the Steven Frisk novels can be a worthy contender to carrying on the Jack Ryan spy thriller genre. I’d read it again, and pick it up on Kindle.
Grade: B —
Reviewed by Jason
When Veronica Roth’s third book in her Divergent series, ALLEGIANT, came out, there were spoilers galore. And due to the Divergent trilogy’s crossover into pop culture, most people know that at least one character came to a shocking end.
That makes writing a review for ALLEGIANT nearly impossible without giving away the entirety of the plot. So this is your one and only warning — if you do not want your reading spoiled, and you have yet to read ALLEGIANT, look away now.
The end of INSURGENT left Tris (née Beatrice) Prior and her boyfriend, Tobias (also known as Four), in a terrible spot. (Both DIVERGENT and INSURGENT were reviewed at SBR here.) Their near-future Chicago has been rent asunder. The former leader of Erudite, who’d tried to take over everything, has been slain…and Tobias’s own mother, Evelyn Johnson, has come back from a long exile and has taken over. But there are people from the former five-faction system upset over this — the Allegiant — and they are continuing to fight against Evelyn’s rule.
Because Tris’s Chicago was built on the five-faction system (Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, and Amity), being without factions (or “factionless”) is a challenge. The city is unsettled and quite frankly, on edge. And Tris, because her brother was high up in the Erudite hierarchy despite his youth, is right in the thick of things even though she was all for the downfall of Erudite and the demise of the former five-faction system.
Well, her brother, Caleb Prior, is being tried as a traitor. And even though Tris has solid reasons to be angry with Caleb and never talk with him again for the rest of his life, Tris does not believe her brother deserves the death penalty. So she’s going to try to save his life, even though he doesn’t deserve it.
While this is only one of the threads of the story, this is the one that resonated the most with me.
The second-best thread was the ongoing romance between Tris and Tobias. They truly care for one another, yet do not agree all the time, which of course is healthy but must feel awful when you’re in a war zone with all of those heightened emotions. And because Tris must somehow save her brother while doing her best to help institute a truly factionless system that doesn’t have all the sturm und drang of the Evelyn Johnson-led version, that adds depth and complexity to the romance.
And the third-best thread was Tobias having to deal with both of his complicated, difficult parents. Evelyn, his mother, was damaged due to Tobias’s father, the former leader of the Abnegation faction — she was beaten, Tobias himself was beaten, and it’s a miracle either one of them survived.
I fully believed in all three of these plot-threads, and wish that the book had concentrated more on them…but, as always, I digress.
The rest of ALLEGIANT deals with stuff like memory serums (which erase memories rather than restore them), death serums (which cause instantaneous deaths, naturally), whether or not you can have “pure genes” (supposedly there was a Purity War long ago, and the people with the most-damaged genes fled to Chicago and other enclaves in order to rehabilitate them), and if being Divergent means you must have pure genes.
The last in particular is vexing because Tobias is Divergent, just like Tris. But he supposedly has damaged genes, while Tris’s are pure. So he starts thinking of himself as a low-class citizen, partly because of some intrigue with the people who’ve been watching the people of Chicago all along — a bunch of scientists and latter-day nogoodniks who watch the goings-on of the factions as if it’s contemporary reality TV — and partly because Tris is going around kicking butt and taking names while he’s been forced into more of a diplomatic role due to his mother’s uneasy ascension to being the unofficial ruler of Chicago.
Eventually, Tobias figures out that his genes being damaged matters a whole lot less than the type of person he is. But by this time, the biggest plot-wrinkle of them all has occurred…
(Big spoiler alert!)
You see, Tris sacrifices herself. She does it to save her brother, because he’s volunteered to keep the memory serum from being distributed to everyone in Chicago in order to reinstitute the five-faction system due to the nogoodniks I mentioned before by infiltrating a lab. Tris has a partial immunity to some of the serums, which is why she and only she can do what she does. And of course, she dies a heroine.
Because of this, Roth had absolutely no way to keep telling the story unless she added a second point-of-view character. (The first two novels were told only in Tris’s POV.) Which is one reason we get so very much of Tobias’s thoughts, mind you, as only he can talk about what happens after Tris is dead and the world goes on without her.
Eventually, Chicago comes to a new beginning. Tobias eschews violence, becomes of all things a political aide, and keeps in good contact with all of those who helped him in those last, desperate hours. He is sad, and frustrated that Tris is dead, but his life has gone on and perhaps someday, he will date again.
Now, what do I think about all of this? Mostly, I’m befuddled. There was a good amount of plot, but much of it revolved around Tris and Tobias because of what the other people around them were doing rather than what they were doing.
Or, put bluntly, in DIVERGENT, Tris and Tobias/Four act. In INSURGENT, while they are unsettled and are clearly scrambling and are in panic mode due to being in a war zone, they again act.
But here, they react. I didn’t like that.
I didn’t like that at all.
Bottom line? The trilogy has a nice, narrative arch, but I don’t truly buy why Chicago’s in this terrible spot to begin with. The five-faction system seems like something that could never work in the real world, but I do believe that it would break up and there would be strife.
While I liked Tris as a character and believe that, as a heroine, she did what was right for her (the action flowed out of her characterization, and thus were authentic), I felt many of the things that led up to her authentic ending were a bit off.
And as for Tobias and his grief? I think his grief was real, but I honestly do not believe it would only take him two and a half years to put Tris and her memory behind him. I think it would take much, much longer than that — something like what’s going on with Katniss Everdeen and her husband, Peeta, during the very end of MOCKINGJAY is much more likely (Katniss does have the love of her life, thank goodness, but she’s still incredibly sorrowful over everything else — and that is realistic).
So I have a real problem here when it comes to grading. I like the writing; I like it a lot. I like the characterization, too. But the actual plotting needed some smoothing out.
Thus, we have some split grades to follow, as well as a grade for the overall series:
Writing: A. Characterization: A. Plotting: C-minus (and that’s being generous)
Grade for trilogy: B
— reviewed by Barb