I cannot get over how stunning that cover is.
Anyway! This is a really cool mash-up of old school James Bond and what I feel is best described as Lovecraftian horror, with demons and cultists and sorcerers galore. It is 1963, and British Intelligence agent Christopher Winter is set to complete the assassination of a traitor, a priest named Father Costigan. Winter feels a bit badly about going after a man of the cloth, then doesn’t know how to feel when the priest turns into a flesh bag of murderous insects. Winter’s echo man (which is a term I’d never heard before for cleaner — I learn a new thing every day) goes missing and the next thing he knows, Winter is being hauled in for a debriefing that seems to involve a lot of drugs. Winter’s life very rapidly goes to shit, and he’s soon run away to Vienna, pursuing the only lead he has to the nightmare his life has become: the name of a broker in the occult, as well as a national secret that is his only currency in his search for answers.
In Vienna he meets the deadly and self-contained Karina Lazarova, whom he discovers is more than just a double agent. They wind up going on the run together, evading capture by both sides as they strive to collect all the pieces of a book written in a language of fire that could hold the key to not only ending the Cold War but, if they’re not careful, all life as they know it.
So here’s the thing with both the works of Fleming and Lovecraft: the characterization isn’t the greatest. Nick Setchfield stays true to his predecessors in putting together a thrilling, macabre tale of espionage, reliquaries and demonology, but I couldn’t help feeling as if our characters had only the barest traces of personality, and then usually in relation to a loved one (e.g. Winter with Joyce, Malcolm with Tobias.) Defining a character by their external relationships is fine, but I really wanted more interior life. Why, for example, had Tobias and Karina become the persons they were? Oh, sure, we had a brief sketch of Karina’s background, but why was she so willing to let Winter go with her? It’s a little weird when the most understandable characters on the page are a near-cadaver (Kelly) and a soulless killing machine (the Widow.) I literally had no idea what drove Malcolm or Karina to do the things they did. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at Malykh’s reasoning: even if it was wrong/flawed, it was still very consistent for that character.
This was a really fun concept novel that fell short — perhaps deliberately given its source material — on characterization. It had as many cool occult twists as it did spy thrills, and it’s pretty great to go along with Winter as he slowly unravels the web of deceit that’s been spun around him. I’d love to read more novels set in this world and am honestly rather surprised that I’ve never encountered anything like this before.
(Edited to add that yes, I have read and love Charles Stross but the few stories I’ve enjoyed were more FBI than CIA, so clearly, I need to read more of his work!)
The Frumious Consortium is participating in a book tour for The War In The Dark, so stay tuned for our author interview on the 25th! In the meantime, check out some of the other tour dates in the infographic to the right.