New political thrillers are heading to the brink of disaster (and plunging)

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NEVER
By Ken Follett
802 pages. Viking. $ 36.

Follett’s latest novel is full of characters who work in espionage – from Abdul John Haddad, a CIA agent, to Chang Kai, a high-ranking Chinese intelligence officer. But it is not a spy novel per se. In a brief preface, Follett mentions that the idea behind this book arose from his research for his 2010 novel “The Fall of the Giants,” which takes place at the turn of the 20th century. “I was shocked to realize that World War I was a war that nobody wanted, he writes, which made him wonder if and how such a “tragic accident” could happen again. “Never” provides a very contemporary answer to this question.

The preface removes some of the suspense from what follows and also makes it clear that the anti-terrorism plot of the novel’s opening pages will not be its primary focus. Instead, Follett explores how a conflict between Chad and Sudan is slowly dragging the United States and China to the brink of conflict. About a quarter of the novel, the scope widens to encompass an internal conflict in North Korea, which leads to new rifts between the two superpowers.

“Never” isn’t always a subtle book – there’s a Republican politician who uses the phrase “bad hombre” – and a subplot about Pauline Green, the US President, watching her marriage implode feeling overcrowded. (A greater focus on the South Korean president, who is making a few decisions of global significance, would have been welcome.) But as climate change threatens to increase political unrest, Follett carefully dramatizes the growing danger by referencing starvation in North Korea and the drying up of lakes. in Chad.

Throughout the novel, characters emphasize that nuclear weapons should only be used as a last resort. Kai argues with his more militaristic father that “annihilation would almost certainly follow” a nuclear strike against the United States, and Green has disturbing conversations about atomic warfare and casualty levels with his advisers and family. And yet, despite all these warnings, the dice seem inexorably cast. The chapters of the book are grouped by Defcon levels; While nearly half of the novel takes place in Defcon 5, “the lowest readiness,” it’s not much of a spoiler to say that this is changing for the worse – and the tragic momentum of the last hundred pages leads to a sobering conclusion.

DAMASCUS STATION
By David McCloskey
419 pages. Norton. $ 27.95.

McCloskey, a former CIA analyst, drew inspiration from recent Syria history for his novel “Damascus Station”: Portraits of President Bashar al-Assad hang above office doors, unrest shakes the nation and the demonstrations are met with violent repression. At the heart of the book is a cat and mouse game played by three characters: Sam Joseph, a CIA agent; Mariam Haddad, who works at the Syrian Palace; and Ali Hassan, a Syrian general. Although perhaps “cat and cat and mouse” or “cat and cat and cat” might be more apt, given where the novel ventures.

The shifting dynamic between these characters gives this novel much of its tension, with Sam working to recruit Mariam for intelligence work and Ali trying to cover up security leaks. The decidedly illegal relationship that develops between Sam and Mariam complicates matters – and, sadly, gives free rein to McCloskey’s more flowery tendencies as a writer (“the initial cartoon of the sultry olive-skinned desert princess blending in with English-speaking, Krav’s diplomat practicing maga. ”Sam’s desire for justice after the death of a colleague in Syrian detention adds another layer of personal investment to the mix.

Where the novel excels is in the very specific details of espionage, including an explosives test using corpses, the CIA’s continued use of Lotus Notes in the early 2010s (“What – What is it, 1995? cat for the dead drops. Sam has a knack for the game, but luckily that doesn’t orient the story towards clichés from spy novels; instead, McCloskey l ‘uses to found Sam’s sense of risk management.

Ultimately, it is Ali – the novel’s de facto antagonist – who emerges as the most intriguing character, portrayed as a man with few good options and no illusions about the regime he works for. “Assad is going to kill his way with all of us attached to his throne,” he tells his wife at one point – and his older brother, Rustum, a sociopath with a penchant for torture, looms more and more as he goes. as the novel nears its end. conclusion. While Sam and Mariam’s cross-connection is central to the novel, characters like Ali and the tattooed, secular station chief Procter give it more unpredictability.

THE COMING DAYS
By Tom Rosenstiel
354 pages. Ecco. $ 27.99.

A newly elected Democratic president takes office with a plan to break the partisan deadlock in Congress, strengthen the country’s infrastructure and tackle climate change. Seems familiar? Rosenstiel’s “The Days to Come” – his latest novel starring political fixer Peter Rena and Randi Brooks – uses the early days of David Traynor’s presidency, “the billionaire brother,” as the backdrop for a story of industrial espionage and online disinformation. .

The book initially focuses on the efforts of Traynor and his Republican vice president, Wendy Upton (who crossed paths with Rena and Brooks in Rosenstiel’s previous novel, “Oppo”), to push through their ambitious agenda. While the idea of ​​a bipartisan unity ticket may seem overly idealistic, Rosenstiel balances it with a more savvy sense of political “nihilists” and rivals who “had learned to just block everything” than the former occupant of the oval office had tried to push through. Meanwhile, Rena deals with an attempt to smear him online reminiscent of Pizzagate – with his own version of the attack on Comet Ping Pong.

Eventually, these seemingly disparate threads come together, although the opening third of “The Days to Come” may feel more like a long prologue than a fully engaged aspect of the story. And some early revelations, such as the efforts of Traynor’s political opponents to consolidate their own power, seem undercooked at the end of the book. When Rosenstiel’s novel finally tackles the idea of ​​international espionage and the pros and cons of keeping world-changing technology a secret, it becomes truly empowering and lives up to its ambition. Besides its more familiar elements, “The Days to Come” has a few surprises in store – although it has less to say about the current state of Washington than it first appears.


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