Psychic spy Tana Standish has a habit of appearing slap-bang in the middle of the most significant historical upheavals of the 20th century. This time she’s in Afghanistan in 1979, providing intel for the British secret intelligence service, running interference for freedom fighters, side-stepping a Soviet plot to kidnap her, liberating victims of oppression, avenging cruel acts of exploitation, running double-agents in the KGB and assassinating the odd despot.
Tana, as you may have gathered, doesn’t have a quiet life. She’s a bit like Angelina Jolie in Salt or Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde – daring and determined, with a killer skill-set. Like the Salt and Broughton characters, Tana frequently skies way off piste – she forms strong loyalties outside her organisation, stalks the grey territory in between agency boundaries, and takes on tyranny wherever she finds it. Unlike the other two kick-ass females, Tana has psy-talents too.
Not that Tana’s psychic abilities give her much of an advantage in this adventure, the third in the series. If anything, they’re a liability which allow her enemies to locate and attack her. In any case, that aspect of the story is secondary to the complicated plot and historical situation which is painstakingly portrayed, and includes many of the actual personalities involved in the complex political shenanigans of the period.
Author Nik Morton doesn’t skimp on lavish descriptions of the Afghan wilderness, the indigenous clans, their language, customs and heritage. If you read crime fiction to immerse yourself in a sense of place and time then Mission: Khyber will be perfect for you. Almost every chapter provides a potted history of a region and its people, from an archaeological perspective through to the religious upheavals which fuel unrest to this day. This is a spy story with a history lesson sneaked inside it.
Morton also delights in mixing in references to his other books – in Khyber a precious artefact makes an appearance and I suspect it surfaces again in his Avenging Cat series. That’s a nice touch; a way of rewarding attentive readers.
This isn’t a racy read, however. Sometimes the facts get in the way of the fiction and the sheer deluge of detail slows the pace to a near-standstill. By contrast to the historical and sociological commentary, some of the action is skimpily described: a shot fired, a man falls. In places it lacks… punch.
Mission: Khyber is, however, thought-provoking and intellect-expanding stuff, meticulously researched, with a carefully planned plot and a fascinating core character to provide rock solid foundations. A rewarding read suitable for folks who enjoy meaty literary series like Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic naval epics.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Mission: Khyber by Nik Morton is available in paperback and ebook formats