Book Review: The Black Widow, by Daniel Silva

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cv_the_black_widowHaving never read a Daniel Silva novel before, let alone one from the Gabriel Allon series, I was deeply impressed with The Black Widow. It was a great representation of what seems to be Daniel Silva’s incredible skill in crafting a bestselling thriller. The Black Widow contains an intricate plot about a legendary spy, a terrorist organisation, and a young woman who has the right skills at the right time.

The novel starts off appearing to be completely unrelated to the intriguing blurb covering the back of the book, but then it gathers momentum and mystery, becoming clearer where a character such as described in the blurb fits in. An attack from ISIS initiates an introduction to a secret Parisian counter-terrorism group, and from there the story works it’s way towards Gabriel Allon. Wanting the best to be involved in finding the perpetrators and stopping further attacks, Gabriel is enlisted by the French government to eliminate the threats. A plan is set into motion, infiltrate the ISIS caliphate by means of a Black Widow operation. A candidate for the role is then selected, and so begins the dangerously sensitive mission.

Daniel Silva writes with seemingly great insight into intelligence agencies from around the world and their counterparts of criminal and terrorist organisations. As stated in the forward and the author’s note, the events, incidents, characters, and places are of course fictitious, but still it is entirely believable in the sense that Silva manages to be realistic and rational.

The book itself could quite easily have been a stand-alone book; a new reader such as myself has no trouble in picking up the plot and the characters. It is not as though all the background information is thrust upon the reader so that the current story can be understood and get underway, but rather Silva reveals the previous stories and details almost with caution, letting them be explained when appropriate. As the reader, there are times when you desperately want to know more about how the past has affected the present situations and relationships, and it is then that more is provided. However, for the many people that have read the series and do know Gabriel’s history, in my opinion these explanations and flashbacks would not feel slow or repetitious. It is easy to tell that these features only scratch the surface of previous events that make up the 15 books before The Black Widow, serving as a reminder to those who have read them and for those who haven’t, making them eager to delve deeper into Gabriel’s story.

There seems to be a lot of fascination for characters like Gabriel Allon; an individual that possesses a skill set that is nothing short of extraordinary which contributes to making him mostly a misunderstood hero, if that; yet always in some respect unknown which seems to provide most of the allure surrounding such characters. Those such as James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, and many others have proved that there is a definite market in the entertainment industry for these brilliant and complex characters. While similar in the basic undertones, they continue to thrill those who read the books in which their lives are contained or watch the movies where their heroisms are portrayed in 90 minutes or so. Daniel Silva has created an individual that, in my opinion, stands out among these. The Black Widow is the latest instalment of the 16 book series that features Gabriel Allon, and in one book he has been able to spark my interest enough to read more of Gabriel’s story, and this to me shows incredible skill.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Black Widow
by Daniel Silva
Published by HarperCollins Publishers
9780732298951

Book Review: Solo, by William Boyd

I enjoy William Boyd’s writing. Restless, cv_solo_William BoydWaiting for Sunrise, . These are what you might call rollicking yarns. The protagonist, male, is at the centre of events much larger than him. He plays an important part – often not entirely intentionally – in the way things turn out. The stories span years, if not decades or lifetimes. When faced with the chance to write a James Bond story, Boyd mostly falls back on this model– rather than the more driven nature of Fleming’s Bond. Fleming’s Bond is pivotal to the plot, not incidental like Boyd’s.

Solo, as a result, is a peculiar book. It is as if Boyd can’t make his mind up. Should he write Bond his way, or Fleming’s way? His indecision is reflected on every page as well as in the overall structure, in which the eponymous solo mission doesn’t start until two-thirds of the way through the book. Faced with a story that unfolds over a shorter time frame than he is used to working with, it is as if Boyd has padded it out. Coupled with generous line spacing and margins Solo is also a shorter book than I’d first thought on picking it up.

roger-moore-james-bondBoyd, as with any contemporary Bond author, is also bound by the Bond of the silver screen. It is simply not possible to shake, at best, the image of Connery, at worst Moore (pictured), plodding around the screen, valuable minutes taken up with his bathroom regime, his contemplation of the view, his choice of meals. Boyd’s Bond is that Bond, and could never match the brutality of Dalton or the lightning-quick action of Craig.

Boyd’s Bond is forty-five the day the book starts, his story set in the late sixties. The world Boyd shows us is the world we have seen in the films of Connery and Moore, his Bond recast back as Fleming’s original, the ‘right’ age according to Fleming’s authentic backstory which tells us Bond was born in 1924. It means also that Bond should have officially retired as a ‘00’ officer, Bond aficionados knowing that the retirement age is forty-five, but soon he is sent on the mission that takes up the first two-thirds of the book .

So Bond is a veteran – but of what? Instead of showing flashbacks on Bond’s previous career – perhaps he thinks readers will know too much about this already – Boyd is at pains to show us Bond’s doubts about what he is doing, about what he wants, by having him reflect and ponder over coffee, dinner, cocktails and so on, but it is always generalised and wholly unconvincing.

Bond’s interactions with M and others are similarly shallow. The mission is barely described. We see not the slightest preparation or briefing. Things happen as if by accident. Bond casually catches flights, talk to friends and enemies alike, without any clear sense of purpose. Boyd also creates an entirely fictional African country as the setting for part of the story but, because he flies there from London and the USA, this simply heightens the sense of disbelief.

Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book. I was looking for a story that zipped along whereas Solo, at its best, plods. I wanted details that made me believe in the world I was seeing, not endless descriptions of Bond pondering his clothes and food. I wanted him to be more central to the unravelling of the plot and, while he played his part, it always felt incidental. He appears to be, if not exactly bumbling, someone who is never quite sure what is going on. He is, of course, happy to bed the Bond girls that come along. Boyd has made sure to include that ingredient of the Bond recipe.

And it was a recipe that finally killed the book for me.saladdressing Not for a cocktail, but for a salad dressing, of all things. Boyd describes the ingredients in the narrative but then inserts a footnote setting it out again in detail. The note is completely out of place, unnecessary and, for a third person narrative, self-indulgent.

All of this is a shame, because the story itself had great promise. An aid programme subverted, a African civil war, a deformed villain, a couple of unwittingly helpful bystanders, some attractive women and a clever Brit doing what the Yanks, with all their might, couldn’t. Classic Bond ingredients but, like a good cocktail or salad dressing, when the mixing-up is off, even slightly, you recognise what it is supposed to be, but that doesn’t make it satisfactory.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Solo
Written by William Boyd
Published by Harper
ISBN 9780224097482

Distributed by Random House NZ