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Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Ascendant by Drew Chapman

Simon & Schuster, $25, 400 pages (release date - 1/7/13)

The promo material for The Ascendant said that the book was a real page-turner, how the editor read it in two sittings -- hey, it is 400 pages and supposedly editors need to sleep. There's usually publisher's hyperbole and hyper, hyped-up hyping that accompanies the release of a book. In this case, the enthusiasm is not misplaced. The book is captivating and clever.

Cross the venerable cult movie "War Games" with big-time movie "Wall Street," especially notable for the Wall Street sleezoid Gordon Gekko, and you've got a rough approximation of The Ascendant.

Garrett Diego Reilly is 26 years old, a bond analyst on Wall Street, and a genius at pattern recognition and arrogant behavior. He grew up on the rough streets of Long Beach, California. He was a surfer dude with a dysfunctional family. His older brother was a Marine who died while serving, maybe from "friendly fire." Garrett's only passion is making money, no matter how. If making money means betting against the U.S. in the financial market, then so be it.

One day Garrett notices a pattern in the bond market. That pattern potentially will disrupt the American economy, and the source of the disruption is China. He tells this to his boss (preparatory to striking while the iron is hot and shorting the market), who promptly calls the Treasury Department. Thanks to Garrett's information, the government avoids a meltdown -- but also disrupts Garrett's plans to make a lot of money for his firm. What a jackass! you will say repeatedly about Garrett throughout the first 50 or so pages.

Captain Alexis Truffant, an attractive representative of the Defense Intelligence Agency, enlists Garrett to find other patterns in the enormous amount of data streaming from all points of the world through the internet. The U.S. needs his unconventional and effective way of thinking, she says.

The government gives him a team of odd individuals, all of whom have a special area of knowledge that they must cram into Garrett's head so he can start coalescing the data and spotting the next pattern of disruption.

The status quo military powers-that-be aren't too sure about Garrett's helpfulness until he pulls a fast one on them in a test of his out-of-the-box thinking. (I'll leave the details out so you can be surprised.)

At the halfway point in the book, the tenor changes. Garrett is running for his life. He and his team of misfits were once part of the military organization. Now they are on the outs but still committed to their original purpose: avoiding war with China.

Part of the book takes place in China. Hu Mei, or "The Tiger," as her followers call her, is leading a grass roots insurrection against appalling labor practices in her small area of China. Word of her bravery has made her a folk hero. She knows, however, that she is human and in over her head.

Eventually, when war between China and the U.S. looms, author Drew Chapman draws that story together with his David-and-Goliath main story, and he does it very well.

This is an appealing, fast-paced, at times geeky, story of international intrigue. What Chapman does very well is introduce subjects that could have his audience yawning -- internet/techno and financial stuff -- and not slow down the pace with overdone explanations. However, he always puts his characters first. It's easy to get a sense of the differences in the individuals on the team and to appreciate them for what they are. Even though Chapman would have served his story better if he had thrown out his one-paragraph sex scene, that's only one cliché among a ton of original ideas.

It's not War and Peace, but it is good fun.

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