This savvy political thriller turned out to be a treat. It’s topical and intelligent with engaging, credible characters and a clever, convoluted plot. Author HN Wake delivers authentic action, narrative satisfaction and a resounding resolution which balances the book’s occasionally downbeat themes with a gratifying payoff. If that hasn’t sold you on the story, then there’s more: drily witty dialogue in a variety of voices, detailed and well-informed 21st century spycraft, and a confident style of writing which hits all the right beats. This is mature fiction for a thoughtful audience, and it may well be the best indie thriller I’ve read this year.
The cast of well-developed, quirky and engaging characters centres on Mac, an ex-CIA spook who has turned her back on the Agency after a series of betrayals which left her high and dry, isolated in the field. She returns to the USA, puts a small team together and takes a private job for a friend, seeking to resolve the blackmail of a US senator. Mac’s investigation leads her to an unsavoury cable news service which manipulates the headlines to attract an audience and subsequently influence national politics. Meanwhile, in the Deep South, a young black boy is shot by police officers, and his family subsequently demonised by the unregulated media. Given the actual events of 2016, this storyline is right on the zeitgeist…
Mac Ambrose is that most popular protagonist of the modern crime-thriller, a self-confident and completely capable female agent who more than holds her own in a fiercely competitive world. Except that – unlike some ‘super’ heroines – she has the feel of a real, complicated person. She certainly has the skillset and experience of a typical kick-ass wonder woman, but HN Wake firmly grounds her characters and story in the real world. When an op goes wrong, and Mac has to flee, she suffers the sort of injury which Jason Bourne or Evelyn Salt would simply shrug off. Instead Mac must endure the grind and twist of stretching tendons; the nauseating, incapacitating pain of a genuine injury. This is how things might really go down in the real world: hard and nasty.
Many of the movers and shakers in ‘Serpents’ are female which makes for a pleasant change, but HN Wake doesn’t hammer you over the head with overt feminist lecturing – and her male characters are equally intriguing. I particularly liked the native American FBI agent who brings careful consideration to his duties – and there’s an older CIA agent, mere months away from retirement, who must choose between doing the right thing, and doing the pragmatic thing…
And that’s the underlying theme to this tale. Mac feels alienated from the society she’s spent years protecting. She’s been engaged in covert actions behind enemy lines, and returns home to find that her society has lost its moral compass. Does she withdraw altogether, or take the bold step to follow her own ethical imperative?
There are other books by HN Wake in the Mac Ambrose series but this was my first and the back-story was well-explained so I didn’t feel like I was constantly playing catch-up. Now I’m off to order the others…
You can read ‘Serpents’ on several levels: a straightforward spy thriller, or a social/political commentary. Either way, it’s a ripping read so it scores a (very rare for me): 9/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Serpents In The City by HN Wake is available as an ebook