1.22.2012

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

Agent 6
Agent 6
Agent 6 is the last book in a trilogy detailing the trails and travails of Leo Demidov, former MGB agent. I am sorry to report that it doesn't compare to the previous two books. Those first books were marvelous portraits of life in Soviet Russia. As you read, you felt at least a piece of the fear and paranoia of that time. But by the time we've rejoined Leo Demidov in 1965, everyone feels tired and disillusioned. There's a keen sense of how pointless it all is. Perhaps this was the author's point, that all the terror and suspicion were pointless. But after the high drama of the first two-thirds of the series, this book was kind of a let down.

The first part of the book shows Leo living as low profile an existence as possible with his wife, Raisa, and two adopted daughters. As Leo has slipped into obscurity, his wife has rise as a teacher. We find her arranging a joint American-Soviet concert in New York. Leo suspects something will go wrong, but this is dismissed as his old paranoia from his days working for the MGB. Raisa flies to New York with her girls and students. Everything seems normal until Elena, the younger of the two daughters, sneaks away to make contact with a former Soviet sympathizer. She convinces him to make a speech during the concert. It's clear she has no idea that she's just a small part of a larger conspiracy--until thing go wrong and not only is the sympathizer murdered, but so is her mother.

All this takes up the first third or so of the book. One would think that the rest of the book would see Leo ferociously pursuing the case, seeking justice (more likely retribution) for his wife. Instead, he is forced to accept the covered up version of events. Neither the Americans or the Soviets want anyone rocking the boat. And so Leo lays low, for seven years. In 1973, he makes a run for the Finnish border but is caught. An old friend protects him from the gulags or execution, but he ends up exiled to Kabul. If he stirs from that city, his daughters will be punished, too. So Leo stays put, comforted by an opium habit.

When we see Leo next, it's 1980 and the Soviets have invaded Afghanistan. Leo is training new secret police for the pro-Soviet government, but it's readily apparent that the Soviets are not going to win. There are not nearly enough Communists in the country for it to succeed. Not only that, but the resistance is too well entrenched, to well supported. Above all, they know how to fight on their own terrain and the Soviets have no clue how to deal with them. Things do get exciting during this section of the book. How could they not? But you have to wonder, as the reader, what about Raisa?

***SPOILERS BEGIN***

Smith does eventually get back to Raisa, after Leo manages to finagle a defection to the United States. From here the book slides into its long conclusion. Leo uses his access to the FBI archives (they let him in to try and clear up some mysteries to the past) and a friend who serves as an interpreter to find out what happened the night his wife died. He finally locates the mysterious Agent 6 (who doesn't deserve to have a book named after him as he doesn't feature much in the story). Agent 6, a sinister FBI agent from the first part of the book, reveals that Raisa died as a result of a stupid attempt to get a photograph to be used in propaganda. The wife of the murdered sympathizer arrived at the police station were Raisa and her daughter were being held in order to kill the FBI agent that she blamed for hounding her husband into poverty. Raisa was hit by a stray bullet. The FBI agent delayed calling the ambulance to preserve the cover up story, allowing her to die.

And that's it. Raisa died because she was a convenient scapegoat. There was no great conspiracy; it was just bad luck. Leo torments himself for more than a decade because of a minor, pointless, stupid, little plot.

You see why I'm disappointed with the way this book turned out?

***SPOILERS END***

I can recommend the first two books in this series with no problems. They're not just good mysteries, but they are great historical fiction. I'd only recommend this book for fans who can't abide unsatisfied curiosity.

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, by Mark Hodder

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
Expedition to the
Mountains of the Moon
The third Burton and Swinburne adventure almost brings the series around full circle to where it began--almost, but not quite. By the end, I was worried that this might be the last book in the series. But Hodder leaves room for the this extraordinary world and its extraordinary characters to rewrite history once more.

The Burton and Swinburne books are a wildly complicated steampunk/alternate history. I tried to explain the plot to someone yesterday only to realize that the job would require a ream of graphing paper to work out the time lines, plots, and motivations. Or they could just, you know, read the series.

The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon picks up almost immediately where the second book ends (which picked up where the first book ended). They could almost be seen as one massive book that was published in three parts they work together so well. After the second book, it's clear that the British get their hands on the remaining Eye of Naga before their enemies do. Sir Richard Francis Burton is to lead the expedition into the Lake Region of Africa, racing his former colleague John Henning Speke, who is working for the Germans. Before he can even leave Old Blighty, however, he faces assassination attempts and sabotage.

The expedition is only one part of the book. Before long, Hodder introduces another thread to the book. This thread begins in 1914, not 1863. And the narrator of this thread is, inexplicably, Burton, too--inexplicable because Burton died in 1890. That's not the only historical paradox in this thread, either. The Great War had been going on for a long time. Europe is lost. The British Empire only consists of the central African city of Tabora and the surrounding territory. The British have few weapons and few men left to fight. The Germans have terrible biological weapons that have decimated them. History as we know it has seriously gone awry and Burton has landed smack in the middle of it with some crucial parts of his memory missing. His only companion in this reality is war correspondent named Herbert George Wells. It's clear that this later reality is a consequence of all the time travel paradoxes of the previous books. Time has snarled up into a nasty Apocalyptic tangle.

Hodder takes us back and forth between 1863 and 1914, ratcheting up the tension as he goes. There are so many close calls in this book that you have to keep reading just to see who lives and who dies as Hodder prunes back his cast of characters. I can't say much more without getting dangerously into spoiler territory, not just for this book but for all three. Instead, I have to say that these books are highly entertaining and thought-provoking reads. Each new book deepens the story by revealing new layers to what started out as one man trying to erase a smudge on his family's history and subsequently derailing history. I marvel at Hodder's ability to convincingly creating such a wildly complicated story.

1.17.2012

The Leopard, by Jo Nesbo

The Leopard
The Leopard
Jo Nesbø has no problems beating up his protagonist, I'll say that much. Harry Hole has lost a finder, broken and later dislocated his jaw, and given himself a Glasgow grin--not to mention the fact that he's a raging alcoholic that has lost his long term girlfriend and unofficially adopted son, his father is dying, and he fell in debt to a Hong Kong triad. Apart from the Glasgow grin and the jaw dislocation, all this happens before this book starts.

The Leopard starts with a Norwegian police officer arriving in Hong Kong to retrieve our battered hero. There is a serial killer on the loose in Norway, and Harry is only person the Norwegian police think can solve it. Harry, however, is very, very reluctant to take on the case. He seems content to finish the job of destroying himself with opium and horse racing on the other side of the world. Because this would be a very short book otherwise, Kaja Solness convinces Harry to come back to Norway, if only to say goodbye to his father.

Once back on his old stomping ground, Harry can't resist picking up the case. For a miracle, he also manages to avoid going on any benders. Nesbø's books are full of twists and here's the first one. Harry's Crime Squad is competing against the national Kripos for the right to investigate murders. The Kripos, under the odious Bellman, have managed to make a convincing case to the Ministry of Justice. For now, all murders are their turf. Harry and his minuscule team (one detective and one forensics expert) have to investigate on the quiet to that the Kripos don't find out about it.

With all this hovering over him, Harry has to work on puzzling out a bizarre series of murders. The killer is a serial killer, but only in the strictest sense. There's no ritual, none of the other hallmarks of serial murder. The victims are not selected because of who they represent, but because they might have witness something. They're murdered with different methods. There's no timeline. And then the twists start. I think Nesbø has outdone himself with this one. The plot is utterly fantastic, but so well written that you have to believe it.

Even if the rest of the book weren't up to par (and it's well above), the ending would be worth sticking around for. The climax of the book takes place in Goma, Congo and partly on the sides of Mount Nyiragongo, a deadly volcano. The ending of this book is terrifying. The book up to this point has shown you that the killer is capable of extraordinarily sadism against his victims. Nesbø keeps tension going right up until the resolution. Since he's killed off supporting characters before, there's no guarantee that it's going to be okay this time.

And on that note...I'm going to stop talking about the plot. The Leopard is a mystery; you're going to have to read it for yourself if you want to know what happens.

Thematically, the thing that struck me about this book was manipulative people can be. Everyone wants something in this book and most of them aren't afraid to wheel and deal or hurt people to get them. Bellman wants to be at the top of the heap and will blackmail or threaten anyone to get it. The killer wants revenge. Harry's boss wants to preserve the status quo. Kaja wants love. And Harry, I think Harry wants redemption. He just has no idea how to get it and how to stop blaming himself for his failures. This is other thing I like about Nesbø's books. You get a terrific mystery, sure, but you also get deep, carefully drawn characters. If you can handle the gore, these books are excellent.

The Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin

The Kingdom of Gods
The Kingdom of Gods
When I started N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy, I had no idea that the story would end on such a fantastic note. The first book was spectacular, but I thought that the other two books would continue Yeine's journey. But each book has functioned like puzzle pieces that fit together to tell a larger story; you have to read them all to see the big picture. In this final volume, we see--perhaps--where everything was headed in the first place as Sieh transforms from child/trickster godling to a god in his own right.

The Kingdom of Gods begins some decades after the events of the previous book. We meet up of Sieh again. Sieh is the godling of children and tricks, but he hasn't been an innocent for a long time. The years of his captivity have left their marks. Near the beginning of this book, he meets two children who are the descendants of his enemies. After a game goes awry, the two children ask him to swear an oath of friendship. The oath also goes awry and Sieh turns mortal. After millennia as a child, Sieh finally has to grow up and he is not happy about it.

As the story progresses, we learn that there is a larger conspiracy going on but most of the action stays with Sieh as he learns how to negotiate the mortal world without his powers and without youth. To get a sense of the politics, you'll really need to read the first two books in the series because there is a lot of history to explain. The short version is that many of the hundred thousand kingdoms that make up this world are sick of kowtowing to one family--especially a family that spent 2,000 years abusing their authority. Behind this conspiracy is another one, even older, as a godling tries to force his way into godhood. The upshot of it all is that not only is the political situation unstable, but the world itself is in danger as the godling manipulates the universe by tapping into the power of the Maelstrom, the chaotic heart of creation itself.

The Kingdom of Gods is a very affecting read. Jemisin plucks at the heart strings throughout as we watch a perpetual child grow up. The ending is utterly gripping. Because it is the end of the trilogy, there is no reason to keep characters alive for another spin across the pages. Readers will have no idea what will happen and I ended up reading far too late into the night just to see what happened. This is an excellent trio of books and I'm already looking forward to seeing what Jemisin comes up with next.

1.08.2012

When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

When She Woke
When She Woke
I hate to say it, but Hillary Jordan's When She Woke does not live up to its premise. There's a blurb on the back that describes it as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter by way of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. It's pretty accurate in terms of the plot, but the writing style is not up to par to pull it off.

Let's get the plot out of the way. Hannah Payne (e.g. Hester Prynne) is punished for having an abortion by having her skin turned red by a virus. As Hannah reflects on her punishment, we get more details about her world. It's America in the future, after a disease destroyed women's fertility. Evangelists and religious fundamentalists are in charge. Hannah grew up in a very religious home somewhere in Texas. Until she found herself having an affair with a married man and getting pregnant, she never questioned the rules or her beliefs. To protect her lover, she has an abortion and is almost immediately caught. When she refuses to name her lover or her doctor, she is sentences to 30 days in jail at 16 years of being red.

I have to admit it's a pretty effective punishment. Different kinds of criminals are given different colors, so you can see what someone did on their face. Instead of locking them away, "Chromes" live in ghettos and try to get along as best they can. Once Hannah is released, her father tries to help her by getting her into a halfway house for female Reds. Hannah is almost immediately cast out when she objects to the psychological torture the nutty religious owners inflict on their charges. After that, Hannah falls into a network that can help her get to Canada and get her punishment reversed.

This could have been a very interesting book, even it if does rip off The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid's Tale. But there is no subtext to this book. Characters' emotions and motives are explicitly explained, repeatedly. There's very little left for the reader to puzzle about or ponder on. Secondly, the backstory is told in such a way that it comes off as a rant more often than not. If this book is meant as satire or allegory, it feels more like a smack upside the head about how religion is evil. Consequently, the people this book should reach will just get pissed off and not read it.

On the plus side, I didn't take me long to read.

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From Hell
From Hell
I'll be the first to admit that this is an odd book to read over the Christmas holiday, but Alan Moore's From Hell is a deeply thought provoking graphic novel. I finished it almost two weeks ago and I'm still turning it over in my head. From Hell presents the theory that the Jack the Ripper murders were actually part of a joint royal-Freemason cover up, perpetrated by Sir William Gull.

The theory presented by From Hell posits that Queen Victoria's grandson has made a secret marriage with a lower class woman and had a child with her. A group of prostitutes find out about it and decide to blackmail the grandson's friend. The blackmail plot works its way up the pipeline until the Queen orders her personal physician to take care of it. Gull does, in spectacular and psychotic fashion, to "send a message" so that no one will try anything like this again. The murders seem to trigger some latent madness in Gull, because while the murders become increasingly horrific, the message never seems to get sent in the way it was intended. Gull disappears into Masonic visions and dies, in this version, in an asylum.

Plotwise, the book follows the chronology of the murders. It's told from multiple perspectives. We get Gull's angle. We get Inspector Abberline's perspective. And we get the perspectives of some of the Ripper's victims, which are gutwrenching to read because you know precisely what's going to happen to them. You want to reach inside the book and warn them, get them to safety. Gull's narrative is hard to read, for more that one reason. The less obvious one is that when he gets to theorizing and expounding, he pretty much disappears up his own ass. Abberline's narrative, for me, was a lot more enjoyable to read.

Abberline is a bulldog of a detective and pretty much honest, which is impressive considering all pressure around him and considering what the rest of the Metropolitan Police are like. When I read Patricia Cornwell's nonfiction book about the Ripper, Portrait of a Killer, I pondered on how difficult it would be to investigate serial murders in pre-forensic times. As Moore notes in his appendix, the police had to rely on witness testimony for the most part. Fingerprints weren't even used at the time. Investigators have a hard enough time now solving serial murders. In 1888, it would have been well nigh impossible unless you caught the killer in the act. I can understand why they weren't solved at the time because they didn't even have a concept of the psychology of a serial murderer.

I want to say a word about the artwork. One might think that having this particular tale illustrated would make it too horrific to read. But Campbell's work is fairly restrained--apart from the sex that crops up in the narrative. But when it comes to the murders, Campbell shies away from being completely explicit. (For which I am deeply, grateful.) It's still pretty awful, but not as awful as the actual crime scene photographs. Even after more than a century, those are bad enough to make me nauseous.

Moore really did his homework. It's impressive the way that he dovetails his story to the history. The appendices at the back are just as fascinating as the novel itself. As I read them, the theory sounded like the Ripper murders might actually have happened this way. I'm still unconvinced personally. There's just too much, well, frenzy, to the murders. There's no symbolism in them. They sounded, and still do, to me like sheer butchery. This was the only false note for me in the book, where the elegantly constructed theory runs up against the brutality of the actual Ripper murders. I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert. I know more about the Ripper murders than I really want to. So for me, From Hell remains a fascinating theory.