Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs at http://barbtaub.com/
Barb chose to read and review Rise Of The Enemy by Rob Sinclair
At a recent dinner, talk turned to books people were reading. Most of the women said they were reading recent bestsellers. A few men mentioned damaged detectives, while others talked about various spy thrillers. “But the Cold War is over,” I said. “So what could be in the spy thrillers? Is there even an Evil Empire any more (outside of Microsoft, of course)?” In an unofficial survey of our dining table, I gathered the following theories and observations:
- None of the women present said they usually read spy thrillers. All of the men did.
- People are looking for escape to a world where there are heroes who can be powerful, and where —if not black and white—those heroes are at least a lighter shade of gray than the evil, baby-candy-stealing, puppy-kicking Badder Guy. (Maybe the lighter-gray Not-As-Bad Guy just borrows the candy, and shoves the puppy out of the way…)
- Most men go to work each day, knowing there are workplace politics and events completely outside of their control which could crush them at any moment. They want to identify with the heroes in thrillers who are able to manipulate, motivate, or shoot their way to dominance and victory. Shooting is good.
- Men tend to read books by men (implication being that they are for men…) [note: according to a Goodreads survey, that’s actually true, and the same pretty much applies to women.]
My Review: 4 stars out of 5
I had an uncle who could tell you exactly what he’d eaten at every meal since childhood. But he couldn’t turn on the stove by himself. He could tell you the score of every Notre Dame football game ever played. But he couldn’t turn up the thermostat if there was ice on the inside of the windows. So although he was a kind of genius at some things, they weren’t actually things most of society would prize. Luckily, he met a woman who valued him for his handsome looks and sweet disposition. She had the same name as his mother, and was willing to take over from her, making sure his meals were planned and that he was always perfectly dressed. It was one of the most mutually-satisfying relationships I’ve ever seen. And it was, I think, love.
I was thinking about my uncle as I read Rob Sinclair’s new thriller, Rise of the Enemy. The protagonist, Carl Logan, is absolutely brilliant at being a spy—or, more precisely, at killing people. This is not, however, a life skill that is generally prized by society as a whole. As a teenaged gang member, he meets Charles “Mackie” McCabe. Mackie becomes his mentor and, in almost every way, his father. For Mackie, over the next twenty years, Logan turns himself into the most successful operative in the joint UK/US intelligence agency, the JIA. He becomes a man who is a genius when it comes to killing or spying, but who is confused by basic human emotions or motives. And why wouldn’t he be? The only people he’s ever been close to loving are Angela Grainger—the woman who betrayed him—and Mackie—the father-figure who may have abandoned him to torture and possible death.
When Logan is captured during an operation in Russia, he’s tortured both physically and psychologically for three months. Because he’s the man Mackie had molded him into, he’s able to withstand the physical torture. But when his expected rescue never materializes, and when his captors taunt him with evidence that it was the JIA—perhaps even Mackie himself—who betrayed him, Carl begins to crumble.
In a spy story that owes more to John le Carré grittiness than Ian Fleming dash, Logan’s story unfolds through the first half of the book with current action chapters interspersed with flashbacks to his torture. Certainly le Carré’s readers would recognize many of the tropes in Logan’s story:
- Anti-villain: like the anti-hero who may perform heroic deeds despite fundamentally non-heroic character or even goals, the (eventually named) anti-villain is nominally on the side of good, but their path to that goal embraces evil. Logan is forced to consider the possibility that his own superiors set him up.
- Damaged psyche: After almost twenty years as a field agent, Logan knows—even before he’s captured—that his psychological scars are deeply debilitating, and perhaps even incapacitating.
- Cold War is over: yeah, right… And Logan is in prison being tortured why?
- Nobody is good: In Spy-Thriller Land, everybody lies, everybody double-crosses, and everybody kills. In John le Carré’s case, he comes by that mindset honestly, as his real life spy career was cut short by the betrayal of friend and colleague Kim Philby. For Carl Logan’s gray-scale idealism, when everybody he knows is already a killer, the best he can hope for is that Mackie, the closest thing he has to family, will be on his side. Good luck with that.
- My enemies are the only ones who understand me: In a world where you have to keep secrets from your lover, family, and friends, the only ones who actually understand you are your opposite numbers on the other side. In Rise of the Enemy, Logan’s CIA nemesis is goaded to remark, “There’s nothing wrong with the Russians. At least you can deal with them. Negotiate with them. They always have something to offer. They understand how this game really works. They’re not all out there trying to be goddamn heroes like you. They’re realists.”
- Bittersweet ending: Well, I can’t tell you about that (spoilers), but keep an eye out for the one person who (kinda) doesn’t betray Logan. Oh, and yeah—there’s that whole cliffhanger thing, so it’s more of a bittersweet-end-of-the-episode…
In assigning a rating to Rise of the Enemy, I was torn. On the one hand, the writing is terrific. Rob Sinclair sets a blistering pace, and delivers his story in an effective combination of flashback and rollercoaster action. His characters’ compromised morality and cheerful betrayal fits the genre so perfectly you practically beg for someone to just admit the Berlin Wall still stands.
But once I stopped to think about it, there were…problems. Starting with the premise. Why would the Russians have devoted such massive resources in time and personnel to breaking Logan?
[NOTE: slight spoiler alert: skip next paragraph if you’re worried.]
He had no real secrets they wanted or needed. It even looked like the other side was going to accomplish all their goals for them. Personally, even in the “everyone’s bad but some are just badder” spy universe, I just didn’t buy that the stakes were high enough to justify betraying an operative of Carl Logan’s caliber. Even where everyone’s so nasty they’d backstab their own mother, revenge for old wrongs just doesn’t cut it as motivation. I’ve never been in the spy biz myself, but it stands to reason that the blithe sacrifice of devoted, well-trained, and capable senior personnel is not going to do much for morale or retention rates. Stuff like that gets around, especially among people whose training and expertise is—hello!—spying.
[All done. You can read now.]
Other, more minor problems bothered me too. Okay, I haven’t read the first book in this series and don’t know all the background details, so this is probably somewhat unfair. But I have to admit that I gave a giant “WTF?” when the name of the real villain came up—for the first, and basically only time—more than 87% through the book. There were a couple of minor plot holes and at least one unexplained explosion. Also, what’s with the only girl-spy being the one to do the cooking? And finally, there’s that cliffhanger. I have to admit, when I got to the last friggin page and the story just…stopped…I flipped. Oh, no you did not do that.
It’s a personal thing with me. I love when books are part of a series, when you feel that your investment in meeting characters and seeing how they react in different situations will pay off because you’re going to keep developing your relationship in future volumes. Sure, you want to drop a few clues and hints about where that might go, maybe even a little teaser intro as epilog. BUT you owe it to your readers to resolve your existing story arc first. It’s cheating to have everything in the story so far lead up to bringing you to that last page—only to be told that you have to wait (and pay for) another book to find out what’s happening.
So with those complaints balancing the terrific writing, pace, and character building, I’d give Rise of the Enemy four stars. And now I’m going to go back and read Book 1, Dance With the Enemy. Hopefully, by the time I’m done with that, Rob’s next book in the series will be ready to go and I won’t have to obsess about that cliffhanger much longer.