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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reading List: Spymaster

Thor, Brad. Spymaster. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-4767-8941-5.
This is the eighteenth novel in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Scot Harvath, an operative for the shadowy Carlton Group, which undertakes tasks civil service commandos can't do or their bosses need to deny, is on the trail of a Norwegian cell of a mysterious group calling itself the “People's Revolutionary Front” (PRF), which has been perpetrating attacks against key NATO personnel across Western Europe, each followed by a propaganda blast, echoed across the Internet, denouncing NATO as an imperialist force backed by globalist corporations bent on war and the profits which flow from it. An operation intended to gather intelligence on the PRF and track it back to its masters goes horribly wrong, and Harvath and his colleague, a NATO intelligence officer from Poland named Monika Jasinski, come away with nothing but the bodies of their team.

Meanwhile, back in Jasinski's home country, more trouble is brewing for NATO. A U.S. military shipment is stolen by thieves at a truck stop outside Warsaw and spirited off to parts unknown. The cargo is so sensitive its disclosure would be another body blow to NATO, threatening to destabilise its relationship to member countries in Europe and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its NATO allies. Harvath, Jasinski, and his Carlton Group team, including the diminutive Nicholas, once a datavore super-villain called the Troll but now working for the good guys, start to follow leads to trace the stolen material and unmask whoever is pulling the strings of the PRF.

There is little hard information, but Harvath has, based on previous exploits, a very strong hunch about what is unfolding. Russia, having successfully detached the Crimea from the Ukraine and annexed it, has now set its sights on the Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which were part of the Soviet Union until its break-up in 1991. NATO, and its explicit guarantee of mutual defence for any member attacked, is the major obstacle to such a conquest, and the PRF's terror and propaganda campaigns look like the perfect instruments to subvert support for NATO among member governments and their populations without an obvious connection to Moscow.

Further evidence suggests that the Russians may be taking direct, albeit covert, moves to prepare the battlefield for seizure of the Baltics. Harvath must follow the lead to an isolated location of surpassing strategic importance. Meanwhile back in Washington, Harvath's boss, Lydia Ryan, who took over when Reed Carlton was felled by Alzheimer's disease, is playing a high stakes game with a Polish intelligence asset to try to recover the stolen shipment and protect its secrets, a matter of great concern to the occupant of the Oval Office.

As the threads are followed back to their source, the only way to avert an unacceptable risk is an outrageously provocative mission into the belly of the beast. Scot Harvath, once the consummate loose cannon, “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” guy, must now face the reality that he's getting too old and patched-up for this “stuff”, that running a team of people like his younger self can be as challenging as breaking things and killing people on his own, and that the importance of following orders to the letter looks a lot different when you're sitting on the other side of the desk and World War III is among the possible outcomes if things go pear shaped.

This novel successfully mixes the genres of thriller and high-stakes international espionage and intrigue. Nothing is ever quite what you think it is, and you're never sure what you may discover on the next page, especially in the final chapter.

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