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Archive for the ‘Modern Thrillers’ Category

A Treachery of Spies – Manda Scott

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I find it easy, when reviewing Manda Scott’s books, to run out of superlatives. I have never yet been disappointed in any of her body of work and if you are a fan of historical fiction and have not yet encountered her books, then don’t waste time here. Go buy one and get reading.

Three years ago, I read her book Into the Fire with raw, new interest, for she had turned from the milieu of ancient Rome and created a tale in a dual timeline that linked the campaigns of Jeanne d’Arc with a modern police procedural thriller. Into the Fire was my book of the year and I remember badgering her, asking when she was planning on a second book, and simultaneously wondering how on earth she could achieve such a thing.

Then, as something of a side-shot here, last year I read Kate Quinn’s vaunted and most excellent Alice Network, which was similarly my book of the year last year. That novel is a dual timeline work too, set in Post-war France and during the First World War and delving into the world of women spies.

So along comes A Treachery of Spies. And, for me, though it’s only August, it seems clear this is going to be my book of this year. While the novel can be read as a standalone and is not reliant upon the reader having finished Into The Fire, it certainly adds something to have done so, for it explains in depth the motivations and history of the main modern character, Ines Picaud, and a few of her supporting cast. This is not a sequel to that book but more of a second tale, independent and glorious in its own right.

Treachery involves once more a police investigation in modern Orleans, this time into a mysterious death – the body of an old woman found in a car park with a very specific grouping of gunshots and post-mortem mutilation. And while the first book simultaneously led us around France in the retinue of the Maid of Orleans, this one delves into French resistance activity during the height of the Second World War. This, then, is the best of books for me, for it feels a little like what would happen if those two favourite books of mine had met.

The story is one of suspicion, betrayal, murder and espionage on a truly epic scale, telling the tale of spies trained by the British and dropped into France to aid the resistance, of their handlers, the intricacies of coded communications and the-so-called Jedburgh operatives sent over around the time of the invasion of Normandy to aid the resistance in their work. It is also the tale of Picaut’s investigation into an increasingly dangerous series of attacks that has a complex and hidden connection to the survivors of that world of wartime horror. One central theme that helps define the plot is that of revenge, combined with a strong sense of brother- and sisterhood. The heroes of wartime France form bonds that will last ’til death, no matter what the future holds, and similarly some actions leave a call for revenge that echoes through the years.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t delve into plot specifics any further. What I will do is say that I cannot conceive of how Scott began to piece together this complex and twisting tale, and that when I read a novel with any kind of mystery element I constantly attempt to solve the puzzles as I go. Sometimes I unwrap the plot early. Sometimes I manage parts of it. With this book, I remained uncertain to the very end, and even the one thing I did anticipate I constantly found myself doubting. That is a good sign for a thriller in my opinion.

Scott continues her excellent portrayal of the world of modern French policing, but here she also shows a great understanding of the world of wartime espionage and of occupied France. The world she builds for the reader is flawless in its realism and vibrant and terrifying throughout. But despite a strong plot, beautiful prose and a vivid environment, for me it is her characters that stand out. From the beginning it seems we are focused on one historical character for point of view, but as the tale unfolds we are treated to more than one insight, and each character she builds for the reader is real and true.

And as the narrative moves to a close, we are introduced to a concept that is both chilling and horribly current and relevant. In this, I can only salute Scott. A Treachery of Spies is, then, a masterpiece, which is what I’ve come to expect from the author. The two problems she creates are: setting herself such a high bar to leap with her next book, and making me wait now before I get to read it.

Bravo. Treachery is out tomorrow. Pre-order it now or go out and buy it tomorrow.

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Written by SJAT

August 8, 2018 at 8:21 am

Alice Network

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I do like to periodically step outside my comfort zone with books. And little is more outside my comfort zone than this. World War I, of which I know little – in particular WWI Espionage, about which I know nothing – combined with post-war searches for lost loved ones. This, in theory, is so not my cup of tea that it’s a double espresso. And yet I was twitching to read it, partially because it was time to step away from ancient history for a bit, and partially because of the author.

I came across Kate Quinn years back through mutual connections. Her Roman novels are superb. While much of my reading at the time was ‘boys own’ Roman military, Kate seemed to have cornered the personal angles of the Roman court and nailed it perfectly. For me it was refreshing and fascinating. Kate and I have since worked on two projects together (for the sake of transparency.) Despite her brilliance with Roman tales, Kate was urged to move into the 20th century for her next book. I was dubious. She was so good at what she did, why change? But I watched (thank you social media) the process that resulted in The Alice Network. And I was intrigued. I wanted to read this book, as I said, because I needed a change and because I trust Kate’s writing.

The Alice Network is two tales that become one. A dual timeline. Charlie, in 1947 hunting her lost cousin Rose in postwar France, hoping that she survived, and Eve in 1915 Lille, part of a spy network that was undermining the Kaiser’s world and aiding Britain and France’s war effort. To be honest, I’m going to spend very little time on the plot, for fear of spoilers. Essentially, Charlie comes across Eve during the hunt for her missing cousin, and the two suddenly discover a mutual thread that leads them on a chase around postwar France, hunting a murderous collaborator. That’s enough. It’s all you get and no more.

I knew little about WW1 espionage. I had heard the name Edith Cavell, but could have told you little or nothing about her. For the record she is but a cameo here. This is not her story. This is the story of the members of the Alice Network, of which I had never heard. Quinn has pulled at a thread of history about which I was entirely ignorant and unraveled a fascinating subject. Like the best historical fiction, The Alice Network is full of real events and real characters, with a fictional heroine to tie it all together.

I have come across the name Oradour Sur Glane, though, in my trips around France. It is a place I always wanted to go. Its inclusion in this book took me by surprise, but it is part of an intricate web woven by Quinn, a web that includes real characters about whom I was unaware and real situations and places tied together with a clever plot.

The story tales several forms. For Charlie, in 1947, it is a hunt for a lost cousin which sends her into the unknown with surprising and intriguing companions, shunning her rich family. In the process she meets Eve. For Eve, in 1915, it is a tale of espionage that has seemingly been very unsung in literature and which carries nail biting tension and impressive depth of character. Kudos to Kate for this. Gradually, as their stories coalesce and intertwine, it becomes more and more about the growing sisterhood between Charlie and Eve.

The Alice Network is a book that tests every emotion in a way I thought only Guy Gavriel Kay could. It is a masterpiece of emotion and power and will drag you along like an action movie because, despite its investigative subject and personal approach, it is full of tension and pace. Quinn excels at creating deep, fascinating and believable characters, and this novel is full of them.

I choose a book of the year each year. I do it in retrospect in December, when I have a full year’s reading. Not so this year, I suspect. Books by authors I love will strive hard to match this one, but even at this early stage I doubt any will manage. The Alice Network is clearly going to be my book of the year in 2017,

Read this book. You are missing a genre-defining event if you don’t. Alice Network is released on July 12th but you can pre-order it now. Here’s the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0062654195/

Written by SJAT

May 29, 2017 at 12:22 pm

Isis Covenant

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Some time ago I read the first of James Douglas’s “Jamie Saintclair” thrillers, and I’ve been awaiting thne opportunity to get to the second. Well, now I’ve finally read The Isis Covenant.

There is a certain genre of tale that was made popular by Dan Brown, owing to Indiana Jones and revolving around the mystical and the occult in the modern world. And despite Brown’s fame, there are plenty of writers who, to my mind, are better examples. One is Simon Toyne. Another is James Douglas.

Douglas’ thrillers strike, for me, a superb balance. They revolve around an art dealer and antiquarian, which links the modern to the ancient and strikes a chord with the historian in me. And they revolve around mystical objects, whether they be true or simply misinterpretations of the mundane, which adds the thrill. And finally, at least with the first two books, they connect with the Second World War and the Nazi lunatics’ search for occult items to help empower their master race (a subject that’s a guilty pleasure for me). Superb mix, and guarenteed to hit the spot in at least some way for most readers.

The Isis Covenant takes characters and some dangling threads from the first book in the series and reintroduces them, tugging on those threads and using them to weave a whole new story.

A twisted son, a vengeful neo-Nazi, a stymied cop and Jamie Saintclair all seeking an ancient Egyptian crown and the priceless stone that has long been separated from it together believed to bestow prolonged life. And the search will take them into the world of ageing secret Nazis, Russian gangsters, American assassins and so much more.

Utterly satisfying, well-plotted, gripping and colourful, the Isis Covenant is a perfect sequel to the first great book in the series.

Written by SJAT

January 31, 2017 at 12:25 am

Predator

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I’ve not read Smith’s previous Hector Cross novels, so it is possible that I was a bit of a disadvantage reading this, given the clear complexity of the characters’ backgrounds where they have crossed paths more than once. Fortunately the history is fairly well explained in around the first 10% of the book, though it does come across a little as being sort of shoehorned in to set the scene so the story can leap forward.

I’m not sure how much of the book was Wilbur Smith and how much Tom Cain (who I’ve not read) but to me the prose felt slightly different from Smith’s usual form – though not in a bad way. Just different.

The plot moves forward apace at all times and rarely lags at all, which is good with this sort of thriller. One seeks immediacy and excitement, after all. From the initial jailbreak – not a spoiler really, since it’s at the start – through the whole text, there’s a rousing quality to the book and a fairly cinematic feel.

The characters are, in fairness, a little 2-dimensional for me. The hero is just a little bit too heroic and powerful, the bad guy is lifted straight from a scene where he should be torturing James Bond, etc. Mind you, with thrillers, strong character archetypes help drive the plot, and it might be that a little more greyness and depth of character could have slowed the tale.

The storytelling itself flip-flops a little between cliched soap-opera and excellent in-your-face phrasing. The result is not jarring, though, and for me the moments of sheer genius prose more than made up for the more eye-rolling moments.

Overall? For me this is not a genre-defining novel, and don’t expect great literary fayre. But if what you’re looking for is a few hours of fun excitement with solidly-written action scenes and villains you can boo at, then you can do a lot worse than Predator.

Written by SJAT

March 24, 2016 at 10:39 am

October 32nd

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October 32nd is perfect Halloween reading. I know, I know. I read it in February. Might go back and read it in October again. Probably a little too scary to read to my kids, so there goes that excuse!

I read a fair few novellas and short-ish tales, and quite a lot of them are the horror/mystery/creepy variety. Only occasional ones make it to review. Larry Rodness deserves to be here. October 32nd is an easy, absorbing read with a fresh plot, an atmospheric style and a clever set of twists.

Reminding me of the old Twilight Zone or Outer Limits stories, October 32nd tells the tale of an Insurance agent (Alexander Malefant) visiting a small US town called Elora in the line of work. It is Halloween and the town is in the opening throes of a Halloween festival that goes back decades, with – at its heart – competitions against other local towns for a trophy which Elora has won for the past 50 years. In the very beginning we are introduced to a woman considered a witch, families who feud and argue, inept police, the near fatal drowning of a boy, and a town which seems oddly out of place – a throwback to older days. But that’s just the start. When the town’s children go missing and their shoes are found hanging in a tree, everything explodes. The town’s ‘witch’ is vilified, accusations are thrown about, affairs uncovered, and a little of Malefant’s own clouded history begin to emerge. All in Elora is not what it seems, and it may not be by accident that Malefant is here on this day. A huge secret is about to unravel, but even that will not be the end of things.

There is more than one twist and turn in this fascinating tale, which is well plotted, well written and, unusually these days, surprisingly free of the typos and errors that seem endemic of indie or small-publisher releases. All in all a good read. And if you don’t fancy it now, bookmark it for Halloween.

Written by SJAT

February 26, 2016 at 10:18 am

Korolev 1: The Holy Thief

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Every now and then I read something completely on spec that is very much outside my comfort zone. It does you good to vary your reading and experiences, of course. And having caught sight of this book and its author in a Twitter conversation, I felt it deserved a try.

Good call.

The Holy Thief takes place in 1930s Soviet Moscow and follows a rather complex investigation by a police officer into a grisly murder. The investigation leads the somewhat world-weary and rather un-Sovietly inquisitive Korolev into a world of truly dangerous and complicated plots. The murders are associated with the sale of valuables by the Russian state to fund the Five Year Plan and the disappearance of one particular valuable. A simple (though not really so much) murder investigation is made more difficult by the interference of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) who have their own connected investigation going, foreign nationals, the now-banned Orthodox Church, the semi-official organised crime echelons and so much more.

You know those American movies where it turns out not to be a simple FBI investigation, because the CIA and the NSA are involved and some senator or other is out for himself and using them all, and everything descends in a spiral of espionage and deceit? Well that sort of thing plays equally well in 30s Russia, apparently. The plot is well weaved, but it made all the better by the labyrinthine webs of official government departments.

The feel of the book, for me, is something like a cross between the movies Gorky Park and Enemy Of The State with a healthy dose of film noir. The main character is extremely believable and despite the clever connections he makes and the string of punishments he suffers, there is nothing unrealistic there. He is simply lucky, bright and bloody minded.

But for me there is one aspect that makes the book a win. Despite great characters and a good plot, the best thing about the Korolev mysteries so far is the atmosphere. The author’s knowledge and research have been poured into the book until it surpasses the ‘full’ mark and have left us with something that feels REALLY authentic. It made me endlessly grateful that I don’t live in 30s Moscow, for a start. You can almost feel the grimy, rainy street beneath you as you read. Few authors have achieved quite such a level of authenticity in a setting.

Basically the book wins on so many levels. I recommend buying it and reading it. It’ll keep you riveted right to the very end.

Written by SJAT

October 1, 2015 at 10:42 am

Roma Nova – Inceptio

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I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Inceptio. I’d heard of it, seen the rather handsome cover and actually met Alison briefly at a historical fiction do, and when I had a gap in my revue pile, I slotted it in for a read.

Firstly, let me say that I really enjoyed the book. It was engaging and fasincating, thrilling in places and beautifully described. The characters were quite realistic and empathic.

So what is it like, given my aforementioned lack of expectations? Well, I’d say few readers will get everything they seek from it, but most certainly everyone will get something. The obsessive Roman fiction nuts might find it a little too modern. The crime nuts may cluck at their plot being laden with alternate history. The sci-fi lovers will approve of some of the concepts, but could find too much history and realistic modern world filtered in. The Romance lovers might be irked that thrillerdom keeps getting in the way. But the simple thing is that few readers are so specific, and most readers will find at least one aspect of Inceptio that they love, while many will appreciate the all-round. Because there’s crime, thriller, action, military, romance, hints of sci-fi-near-future, exploration of character and so much more. And anyone who likes any of that will read this and enjoy it.

So this is alternate history. A recreation of the modern world in which some decision was made another way at some point in history and things turned out differently. The story takes as its premise not a world in which Rome did not fall, but a world in which a small Roman colony in the Alps survived that fall and the fall of Byzantium in the east, going on to become some sort of Romanized utopia with overtones of Switzerland. And because of the presence of this nation, the rest of the world has developed slightly differently.

Our heroine, Karen (at least for some of the time!) finds her normal New York life turned upside down following a small incident, which sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her learning that she is in fact an heiress, a noble, even a scion of a family in Roma Nova. There ensues a tale that is one of self discovery and personal re-creation as Karen discovers life in the world of New Rome while pyscopaths hunt her, men vie for her attentions and a growing sense of duty forces her to train, learn and join paramilitary forces.

Parts of this story will surprise you, parts will excite you, and parts will enthrall you, but all of it will make you think and make you want to know what happents next. I find it hard to believe you will read Inceptio and not find something about it that really grabs you.

In short, go get Inceptio and introduce yourself to the world of Roma Nova.

Written by SJAT

September 17, 2015 at 8:00 am