A novel about an undercover agent embedded in Afghanistan pre-9/11 would be far more sinister if the author had not used every imaginable subplot to support his protagonist: an uneasy mix of Islamic fundamentalists, dedicated soldiers, evil men determined to decimate America with weapons of mass destruction and the rhetoric that has grown so familiar in the national dialog when dealing with terrorism.
Joining the ranks of the Taliban in 1997, John Wells is so deep undercover that he doesn’t know about 9/11 until after the fact and is unable to warn anyone in the agency, although he does engineer small military defeats, remaining unsuspected.
But when he is tapped for a new and more dangerous mission that requires him to return to the States, Wells knows this is as big as 9/11. He is determined to do whatever is necessary to defeat the acts of the terrorists, although he is purposely not given all the relevant information, everything on a need-to-know basis.
Meanwhile, Wells is a nowhere man, distrusted by his own agency since he has converted to Islam and without enough viable intelligence to disclose the new plot. His only ally is a potential romantic interest who betrays her agency commitment by keeping her association with Wells secret.
As the story unfolds, we meet them all: patriots, fundamentalist fanatics, a frightened American public, dedicated agents, random explosions, dirty bombs, nuclear components cached in an Iraq basement and a heinous plan to distribute disease to the unsuspecting. Will Wells succeed in subverting the master plan? What do you think?
As though ripped-from-the-headlines, the author forgoes subtlety in favor of excess, the novel ultimately suffering from too much exposure and a lack of believability, a chaotic stew. The writing is adequate, but the need to over-impress takes away from the power of the novel, burdened with every imaginable threat and circumstance.
Painted with a broad brush in black and white, the story lacks the emotional nuance of a complex plot, more in the vein of Hollywood blockbusters, pandering to every fear (in his acknowledgments, the author mentions movie rights; now why is that not a surprise?).
The polarized opinions are too stunning and frequent to list, a sampling: “The Americans had punished the Taliban forces and Saddam Hussein”; “We have to be right every day. They only have to be right once.” More psychological tension and more attention to the contradictions inherent in a democracy would have been welcome.
Jack Wells is noble and dedicated, the terrorists cunning, although, in this case, barely clever enough to escape detection, as the author sacrifices tension for the sheer volume of events. When the characters are good, they are very, very good and when they are bad, they are horrid.