Although this was originally published back in 2012, it’s been given a new lease of life by the current political tensions between China and America. The story couldn’t be more timely – it’s a complex chess game between rival black ops agencies, a deadly competition which has gone far beyond data gathering and counter espionage.
Personal history plays a huge part in an intricate intelligence operation, where some individuals seek only revenge while others are overwhelmingly motivated by serving their national interest. Deniable departments nestle within recognised agencies: agents are coerced into actions against their best interests (sometime by the other side but occasionally by their own people) and every operative works to her or his individual agenda. They could all have ‘trust no one’ tattooed on their foreheads…
Unusually, the story starts with the Chinese plotline which I found fascinating. Maverick Xin Zhu has already wiped out an entire American team but his position is far from secure – and soon we’re saturated in clever tradecraft and subtle machinations. The plot is revealed from different perspectives with overlapping timelines which always kept the truth obscured but somehow never got entirely tangled.
Only once I was two-thirds of the way through did I recall that I’ve read a previous Milo Weaver espionage adventure; the first in the series, probably a decade ago. Despite that gap, and missing out the middle episode entirely, I had no problem following the action in An American Spy although I maybe wasn’t as involved with the American characters as I might’ve been if I’d read the other books recently.
So the scenario, tradecraft and plotting were all first-class, and I was heavily invested in several of the Chinese characters and the overall mystery. Why, then, does this only rate 7/10?
Because it failed to finish, that’s why. OK, author Olen Steinhauer delivered some of the answers – but then left a huge amount hanging in mid-air. I don’t mind an end of season cliff-hanger – heck, they’re part of the fun – but so much was left unresolved at the end of this book that it spoiled the whole experience. And it’s put me off reading the next one… which may, of course, be why I dibbed out a decade ago after reading the first one!
So if you read this as part of the series, then it’s brilliant. But as a standalone? It’s OK.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer is available at Amazon
What happens when a covert operative wants to stop killing?
Find out in A LAST ACT OF CHARITY at Amazon