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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Review : Golden Serpent by Mark Abernethy

Title : Golden Serpent
Author: Mark Abernethy
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date Published: 2007
ISBN-13: 9781741752250
Sub-Genre: Action Thriller

The espionage / thriller subgenre has been through a bit of a change of direction over the past few years. In the 60s and 70s it was all about the Cold War and US and British spies fought the Russians and the East Germans. In the 80s we drifted over to a war against South American drug lords thanks to a Tom Clancy novel or two. These days the enemy is the terrorist. And whether he comes from the Middle East or Indonesia, Russia or East Germany or Colombia, the stakes are usually the same. The lives of millions of unsuspecting people are in the hands of a few brave soldiers working covertly at an incredibly high level of efficiency.

Mark Abernethy continues this fine tradition with his stirring debut thriller, Golden Serpent. It's a novel that is quite reminiscent of a Tom Clancy thriller or, if you want to remain closer to home, a David A. Rollins thriller.

The protagonist is Alan "Mac" McQueen, a spy with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) who is within spitting distance of retirement. But getting out of the intelligence game is a lot more difficult than simply applying for a new job and his superiors give him one last assignment.

Mac's assignment is to locate and return an Australian agent who had been posted to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta but is now missing. She may have been kidnapped or she may have turned and has disappeared of her own free will. Either way she has to be found.

To help him on his mission he has at his disposal a team of US Green Berets who will provide a lot of the hands-on "wet work". They will also provide us with heaps of action sequences to get our teeth into. But once he arrives in Jakarta and contacts his informant there Mac soon learns that this job will be anything but straightforward. There are killers on his trail and he's not sure whose side they're actually on. Before he knows what has happened he has strong suspicions that someone from his office is working against him.

His mission becomes even more complicated when he learns that one of the men he is chasing is Abu Sabaya, one of the most highly organised and dangerous terrorists in the world. This comes as a nasty shock to Mac because he thought he had killed Sabaya 5 years earlier. Now he finds that not only is he alive but he is also in possession of a bulk load of a deadly nerve agent known as VX and is threatening to unleash it on one of the most populous cities in Asia.

If only that was all Mac had to worry about. This is only the beginning of a very bad week for the retiring intelligence agent.

Covert operations involving highly trained men such as US Green Berets or British SAS soldier, who have been given a licence to infiltrate enemy camps and use whatever force they deem necessary is generally a recipe for a fast-paced thriller. This is exactly what Golden Serpent delivers. Plenty of Aussie dialogue is mixed in with full-on action sequences performed by professional soldiers unencumbered by annoying obstacles like consciences and rules of engagement. When the mission involves using whatever force is deemed necessary you can be sure that there will be plenty of force used.

The book reaches ever-increasing high points as one mission carries on into the next, each one more dangerous that the last. Failure carries ever greater implications as we go along, too, as we are taken from one crisis to the next. It slowly becomes apparent that we are being drawn into a complicated scenario with the waters muddied by a complex web of lies and deceit making it difficult for Mac to operate.

Abernethy uses a subtle but effective technique to generate an insidious fear of the unknown feeling about the mission by never letting us catch a glimpse of the men that Mac is pursuing. Their names are mentioned often so that they are given an other-worldly aura about their power, but they remain tantalisingly insubstantial for much of the story.

Often times in these kinds of books (action / adventure) the hero is portrayed as an emotionless automaton who wades into battle with nary a second's thought to the danger that lies ahead. These kinds of guys are about as difficult to feel any affinity with as you can get with the average Joe reader encumbered with a normal helping of fear. With Alan McQueen you've got a guy who is fully responsive to what lies ahead and his body reacts in much the same way as I would imagine mine would - the sweating, the racing heart, the adrenaline, the vomiting - all natural human reactions and all attributable to our hero.

Fans of high volatile, well-planned covert operations will enjoy Golden Serpent as it charges fearlessly into battle. A balance of action and political intrigue backed by a protagonist with whom it is easy to identify makes it an easy to digest thriller.

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