I don’t often share Goodreads reviews, but this reader has put so much work into this one, and made so many interesting observations about the book that I thought I’d share it here. Incidentally, HarperCollins USA are running a promo on Savage Tide at the moment so it’s currently on sale at all ebook outlets.
A interesting trend in spy fiction right now is to infuse it with elements of a dystopian nature. The benefits are quite fun. Sure, there’s social decay and chaos, betrayal and psychological agony, but unlike Julia and Winston from 1984, spy fiction protagonists can take care of themselves. The hard way. A primary example of such work can be seen in “American Praetorians”, a series revolving around a PMC which works in a world gone mad. Another, is the Marika Hartmann saga, a most unique counter-terrorist thriller story. Who would have thought that you could hide an environmentalist subtext inside a book belonging to a genre about politics, guns and men who want to watch the world burn? Well, Greg Barron pulled it off by setting it in a radically different Middle East, with Syria and Iran defeated in war and a social/environmental decay across Europe. His first book, Rotten Gods revolved around a hostage taking that shall never be topped, featuring every single world leader of consequence taken prisoner by some clever fanatics. In his second book, while the premise is a bit less unique, he manages to make the narrative rise to the level of a modern day Greek epic, a clash of automatic weapon wielding titans, to prevent a biowarfare attack on the most unassuming, yet brilliant target which no other author in the genre has ever thought of. Now to the review. What happens when the world media got it horribly wrong and it turns out Saddam Hussein did have WMDS?
The novel begins a few months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Operatives from Saddam’s intelligence service bury a cache of biological weapons with the intention of recovering them at a later date. We then cut to several decades later at the Chakula Refugee camp in Somalia. The main protagonist, Marika Hartmann is there to oversee security arrangements, due to the sensitive nature of the camps occupants. What appears to be an active shooter incident occurs with some Islamist extremists unloading a Kalashnikov on some children playing soccer. Racing to the scene too late, Hartmann eventually manages to corner them and take one of the perpetrators alive for questioning. During the interrogation, she learns that the terrorist group responsible for the hostage incident in book one is gearing up for another project, being coordinated by a man designated Istikaan. A secondary interview at Camp Lemonnier, the US military base on the horn of Africa reveals that the opposition knows several intimate details about Hartmann, signs that there is a rat among her employers. In Dubai, Saif Al Din, the antagonist of book 1, is heading for Syria, and in London, the rat who has compromised Hartmann continues to work. All these threads come together in a tsunami of violence, advanced weaponry and ideological extremism.
In terms of plot, while a bit more conventional, Greg Barron does make several major improvements. First, world building. We continue to see how screwed up the setting is. Iran’s lost a war with the West, Syria is in shambles, the E.U is down the crapper with race riots and social decay and Africa is the new hotbed of Islamic Extremism. Next, the plot. A lot more complex than the first book. From hunting the most dangerous game across the Iraq desert using one of the world’s fastest helicopters, to a brilliant action set-piece finale through the skies and swamps of the Horn of Africa, Savage Tide, ramps up the gunfire, death and exhilaration, taking advantage of the freedom from the constraints of the hostage taker scenario. The target of the biological warfare attack is also brilliant. It’s not the usual diplomatic conference or Metro station, but one which is a lot more under-appreciated and yet far more nightmarish due to one simple fact which you’ll find out reading the book. Finally, research, we get a lot more kit in this book compared to the last one. UAV’s, portable bomb disposal robots, battle tactics and the mechanics on the deployment method for bioweapons, Mr Barron could easily claim the title of the Australian Tom Clancy for the surprising amount of real world detail he puts in his story.
Now, characters. Three standouts. First, Marika Hartmann. An Australian who has gone to work for a fictional paramilitary section of the UK SIS, she’s forced to deal with the events of the previous novel, having lost her innocence during its events. The conflict she faces in the books is that of trying to keep her hope and morals, in a world which increasingly has no use for them. While she has the full blessing from the top brass, she’s faced with situations where she’s forced to continuously give bits of her humanity just to keep up with the opposition. In some ways, she’s way more conflicted and angst ridden compared to say Mitch Rapp. But when push comes to shove and her hide is one the line, she is far more brutal and brilliant than Mr Rapp and Harvath in the art of survival, best exemplified when at one point, she’s forced to gut a homicidal Islamic extremist with her bare hands before he can throttle her to death.
Second we have Mr Saif Al Din, perhaps the most intelligent fictional Islamic terrorists in the counter-terrorist thriller genre and one of my favorite antagonists. He’s got vision, tenacity, is highly competent during the implementation and attempted execution of his terrorist attack and compared to the antagonists of a Flynn or Thor novel, is no pushover. Al Din is also bloody terrifying in combat, cunning as a jackal and as devastating as a enraged polar bear jumping on you. In his last stand against Hartmann, he nearly manages to kill her several times, taking full advantage of his superior firepower and the darkness to almost mortally wound her. And when he manages to get within grabbing distance….you will genuinely fear for Marika’s survival and start praying as he goes in for the kill that she survives.
Finally, we have Nayan, a minor character introduced in the climax. A pilot who gets caught up in the attempt at stopping the terrorist incident. As the fight goes on and the well prepared terrorists manage to buy themselves time with counter-measures, he makes an executive decision to solve the problem. He had the brains to realize the problem, the moral backbone to accept the solution and the guts to carry it out to save untold millions from a pandemic which would have become global.
However, I do have some criticisms regarding this book. When you’re putting in a subtext or message in a thriller, there’s always going to be problems if you screw up the execution. The world building for instance which is used to highlight social decay and critique contemporary treatment of the environment would be more suited for a film montage rather than the written word. It comes off more as padding rather than something special which enriches the narrative that it is intended to. Secondly, we have a character, a special forces soldier who gets caught by the opposition twice throughout the book. This one was minor though, while I found it repetitive, the second time ended rather surprisingly. Finally, the rat. His final fate was quite lenient in my opinion. His actions nearly brought the world to disaster and he got exile. At the very least if I was in the position of his superior, I would have thrown him in jail or given him a skydiving lesson of the permanent variety.
So overall, Savage Tide? My verdict is that despite a few shortcomings, it’s a good counter-terrorist thriller novel, which is a unique experience. You have a sensitive, yet brutal hero who is wrestling with her demons and morality, one of the most brilliant terrorists the genre has ever seen trying to bring the his enemies crashing down, and an epic chase across the Middle East and Africa. These three elements combined with the trappings expected only from American writers give this a radically different feel compared to other books in the genre for better or worse.