Alex Berenson's main character, CIA agent John Wells, has one of the most compelling stories in contemporary spy fiction. He was a deep undercover agent with el-Qaeda in Afghanistan for many years and stopped a war with China once he was repatriated. That should be enough for any one man, wouldn't you think? But in the best tradition of heroes, John bounces back for another adventure.
Although John is settled into suburban life with the woman he loves, there's an unease he won't define or tame. He was too long out of the United States, too long without the comfort and materialism of the West, forced into too much introspection, first in Afghanistan, then back in the United States. Where is his place in the world now? This is where we find our conflicted hero when the present story begins: with guilt, a rage, and the tatters of his Muslim faith, and nowhere to go with them.
Berenson describes the theft of nuclear bombs in Russia, a description realistic enough to chill me. Whoa. The bombs must make their way to a jihadist, a very smart jihadist who doesn't need the codes to arm the bomb. He's intent on fashioning his own bomb – a process excruciatingly detailed by Berenson – and taking out a piece of the hated U.S. with it. Double whoa. (And shades of the television show "24"!)
Twisted into this plot is a story left over from The Ghost War. In that story, John had extricated information from an arms dealer, Kowalski, and humiliated him in the process. A theme running throughout the books is John's realization that he sometimes uses unnecessary force to get what he wants. In some way it assuages how powerless he feels about solving the world's problems, especially the wrong-minded clash of cultures in the Middle East. Now Kowalski wants revenge. Unfortunately, Kowalski misses his target and instead harms Jennifer Exley, John's true love. That puts John on the rampage until he realizes Kowalski might be the solution to a bigger problem: finding the bomb and bomb-maker. Strange bed-fellows.
Berenson brings the strands together in an exciting, exacting, and terrifying way. His story rings true, his characters seem so real. Berenson dashes off a back story for most of them, and this gives his characters an exquisite dimension. He even provides a side story of the woman who sells one of the terrorists a house in the U.S. She herself is not important, but her story gives a realness and luster to Berenson's world.
Here are the bottom lines: Love stinks; the East and West will never understand each other; revenge ain't all it's cracked up to be. But what a tremendous ride Berenson gives us in the process of finding all that out.