“Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel” by Sean McFate and Bret Witter

Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel

Shadow War

Sean McFate and Bret Witter

I stumbled upon this book when I read Sean McFate’s rebuttal to Eric Prince’s proposal to turn the US’s operation in Afghanistan over to private contractors, aka mercenaries.   (Eric Prince, lest we forget, was the founder of Blackwater).  Naturally I had to check out his novel, and I was not disappointed.

When I say I was not disappointed, I must emphasize that this is very definitely a book of its genre, that is, the high-octane spy thriller. There’s not a lot of deep introspection or elegant, polished prose: instead what we get are in-depth descriptions of clothes, cars, and weapons. Lots and lots of weapons. If you know what a SAW is (I admit my knowledge is pretty sketchy, but I don’t think you use it for cutting wood) or have deep feelings about Berettas, then you’ll probably get lots out of this book, maybe more than I did, since the differences between SA-80s, AKs, and M-4s are meaningless to me.

That being said, I trust the author’s knowledge on that particular topic, since he was, after all, a mercenary himself, a title the main character has the decency to own up to, at least inside his own head, since he can’t really go around admitting to everyone what it is he does. There’s a fair amount about the lonely nobility of the mercenary profession, which works really as a trope in fiction and actually makes for quite a compelling read. I myself am rather less sanguine about the potential of mercenaries to do good in the world than the characters are, but I’m perfectly happy to read about them and the action is cleverly developed, with lots of cutting back and forth between different and competing points of view. Furthermore, while there are plenty of cliches here, I have to give the authors props for including an unusually interesting and well-rounded female lead, who manages to get off some of the best zingers in the book, such as when she looks at the bookshelf of a young CIA operative and notes that he has the typical reading collection of his type, which includes absolutely zero books by women, unless that woman is Margaret Thatcher. That kind of cutting insight is part of what makes this particular book worth reading, out of all the spy thrillers there are out there to choose from.

The book is set during the current conflict in Ukraine, which makes it highly topical. The Russians are unabashedly evil and the enemy to be defeated as part of the modern Great Game, something the author, once again, at least has the decency to admit to straight out, while the anti-Russian Ukrainians are the good guys, and with nary a swastika or wolfsangel in sight. The ending is sufficiently explosive, and sets up the possibility for a fun series.

I was reading this book at the same time as I was reading some more American “literary” fiction, also about war, and simultaneously reading some Russian war prose, which allowed me to contemplate some interesting comparisons. Why are these kinds of genre fiction novels so compelling? I, presumably, am one of the more sophisticated readers out there, what with my PhD in literature and all, and I roll my eyes when I read stuff like this, but I…can’t…stop…reading…it. It’s great! It sucks you in! You really care about the characters! While a lot of the current American “literary” fiction leaves a lot of readers (like me) cold. The Russian stuff is of course excellent, and far superior (not that I’m biased or anything). Why is that? Because, I’ve decided, genre writers (and Russian authors) aren’t afraid to deploy things like archetypes and heroic, mythological story cycles, and that’s what our subconscious is looking for. The consciously composed literary fiction that deliberately eschews all that is never going to be as compelling as something like Twilight–or this–that just jumps straight in and starts dealing out archetypes right and left.

So, to sum up, if you’re looking for a highly topical, high-action thriller written by someone who’s actually experienced at least some of the things he’s writing about, this book will probably do right by you. You may need to detox from the testosterone and American jingoism afterwards, but that’s just a risk you take when you plunge into the genre.

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