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