There’s a particularly nifty twist to this espionage adventure, set behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-1970s. The smart, sexy female protagonist isn’t just a rare survivor from Warsaw’s WW2 ghetto. Nor is she merely a highly skilled covert operative, brought up by the British military establishment to be extremely effective against the KGB and its cohort agencies when she’s behind enemy lines. Nope, Tana Standish has one more thing going for her: psychic talents.
There’s nothing outlandish in the psi-spy’s capabilities – an eidetic memory, a hint of precognition, the ability to grab a thought or an emotion out of the ether, and an aptitude to telegraph a message to those with whom she’s formed a connection. These attributes don’t make her an invulnerable or less-than-credible superwoman. They’re neatly underplayed, a talent which isn’t understood or entirely controllable but which frequently tips the odd in her favour.
This mild shift into the land of ‘maybe’ is carefully contrasted with the grim, grey reality of life in Czechoslovakia in the Seventies, brought to heel seven years earlier by Soviet tanks, its citizens stifled by the relentless brutal mechanisms of an efficient totalitarian regime. An underground resistance cell has been compromised; a British agent fled and the Czechs are scared. Tana is assigned to put the network back together and use her special talents to ascertain if comms have been compromised, or worse.
The Prague Papers sets a fictional mouse running in what was a very real historical situation. The balance of power in the Kremlin was shifting; new players were emerging. Their unspoken actual story drives the fictional events forward, as KGB and local secret police compete to roll up the Czech resistance, capture the British agents and harvest any intelligence they can glean; by any means.
The result is a running chase through the back streets and sewers of Prague, where the protagonists barely taste their black bread and spicy sausage between violent and amorous encounters. This isn’t a slow-burn spy story a la Alan Furst where the tension builds over quiet encounters and long railway rides. Instead it’s more of a headlong hurtle through rapid liaisons and botched ops; there’s every opportunity for Tana to show off not just her psi skills but also her street savvy and close-quarters combat.
For me, the best scenes are the one-on-one confrontations, claustrophobic closed room battles of expert second-guessing. There’s a superb fight sequence early on which takes place in a pitch-dark living room, where weaponless Tana must defend herself against an armed opponent using her memory, wits, senses and what falls to hand. It’s beautifully choreographed and delivered, dragging the reader into the sweat-soaked reality of being stalked by a stronger killer.
The finale wandered a little too far into the realm of 007’s territory for my liking, with a do-or-die rescue attempt that put yet more operatives at risk. But it’s preceded by a simply chilling chapter, the best in the book, where Tana must marshal all of her mental strength to resist the worst (and it is very bad) that her opponents employ against her.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the scenes in the Soviet psychic investigations unit, their equivalent of the CIA’s ‘men who stare at goats.’ Likewise, the author’s attention to detail in his descriptions of Prague, and Tana’s cracking back-story, were superb.
On the downside, some of the lapses in tradecraft were unforgivable for a seasoned agent; few of the supporting cast had much heft to their characters (a couple of the bad guys were straight from ‘evil Nazi’ central casting), and in the editing there appeared to be a few literals and potential anachronisms which a nit-picky editor might have questioned. And it seemed a little strange that given all of Tana’s abilities and her position as the central character, she still had need of a male knight on a white charger to haul her ass out of trouble.
In the main, however, The Prague Papers made for a rollicking read, an intriguing mix of action-adventure, actual events and augmented espionage. There are further Tana Standish novels in the pipeline, which takes place at other pivotal points in political history. I very much enjoyed the overlap in this one between ‘real’ and ‘fiction’, so will definitely grab the next when it’s out.