An engaging, well-written globe-trotting political thriller
After a tumultuous period in American politics, a new administration has just been sworn in, and to everyone’s surprise the president chooses a political enemy for the vital position of secretary of state.
There is no love lost between the president of the United States and Ellen Adams, his new secretary of state. But it’s a canny move on the part of the president. With this appointment, he silences one of his harshest critics, since taking the job means Adams must step down as head of her multinational media conglomerate.
As the new president addresses Congress for the first time, with Secretary Adams in attendance, Anahita Dahir, a young foreign service officer (FSO) on the Pakistan desk at the State Department, receives a baffling text from an anonymous source.
Too late, she realizes the message was a hastily coded warning.
What begins as a series of apparent terrorist attacks is revealed to be the beginning of an international chess game involving the volatile and Byzantine politics of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran; the race to develop nuclear weapons in the region; the Russian mob; a burgeoning rogue terrorist organization; and an American government set back on its heels in the international arena.
As the horrifying scale of the threat becomes clear, Secretary Adams and her team realize it has been carefully planned to take advantage of four years of an American government out of touch with international affairs, out of practice with diplomacy, and out of power in the places where it counts the most.
To defeat such an intricate, carefully constructed conspiracy, it will take the skills of a unique team: a passionate young FSO; a dedicated journalist; and a smart, determined, but as yet untested new secretary of state.
It will probably come as no surprise that I was very eager to read this novel. I pre-ordered it as soon as I could, and read it right away. (For some reason, I’ve struggled to get into review-writing, hence the delay in publishing this one.) This is a well-paced, quite substantial, globe-trotting political thriller. I very much enjoyed it.
There is plenty of commentary on the state of politics today — not only America, but international relations and foreign policy, too. As something of a politics and history junky, this is a lot of what stood out for me (in addition to the well-paced and constructed plot). We see the impact of the increasing factionalism in the United States domestically, as well as its impact on the global stage. I enjoyed the way the authors played with the role of Secretary of State — Ellen Adams is able to achieve a great deal by drawing on her existing relationships with various luminaries (in and outside of government), navigating the international political landscape in order to help not only her own country, but also the others affected by a coordinated, devastating terrorist attack. As the various investigations gain ground, multiple characters and connections emerge with Adams, the current and previous administrations. There are moments that stretch what could really be considered “realistic”, but no more so than shows like Madam Secretary or Designated Survivor — this isn’t Air Force One. It’s all very well done, and the authors are able to ratchet up the tension nicely as the countdown to an imminent threat progresses. The various threads come together nicely, and there weren’t any leaps of logic that threw me out of the story.
Adams and the administration for which she works have come into office following a Trump-like agent-of-chaos-type president, who spent much of the past four years wrecking the US’s standing on the world stage. He looms large over current events, as certain policies of the previous administration come home to roost. Not only is there the obvious swipe at Trump, but there’s a real message here: those who are ignorant and/or disinterested in facts, history, and reality can cause real, lasting damage on any country, when given the reins of power. As Adams conducts her responsibilities, we get a glimpse of what effect this anarchic period has had on America’s relationships with allies and others. At one point, Adams observes of the Five Eyes group:
Secretary Adams realized that while these men and women were predisposed to trust the US — wanted to, were perhaps even desperate to, considering what was at stake — the fact was they did not. Not anymore. Not after the debacle of the past four years.
Not that it began with Trump (or, in the case of the novel, his analog), but there’s some good commentary on the growth of the right-wing and white supremacist activism in the United States. State of Terror ultimately becomes just the latest thriller that rings the alarm bell about white supremacy and the right-wing threat:
“While you were looking outward, scanning the horizon for threats,” he continued, “you missed what was happening in your own backyard. What was taking root right here, on American soil. In your towns, your shops, in your heartland. Among your friends, in your families. The sensible conservatives moving to the right. The right moving far right. The far right becoming alt-right. Becoming, in their rage and frustration, radicalized thanks to an internet filled with crazy theories, false ‘facts,’ and smug politicians allowed to spew lies…”
There were quite a few moments during this novel that made me chuckle, too. Not because the events were humorous (it’s a novel about international terrorism), but because descriptions of certain characters came across as delightfully pointed. For example:
Prime Minister Bellington had been a favorite target of her media outlets for years, painting him as woefully inadequate. A hollow man, an upper-class twit, with any guts he might have had replaced by entitlement and random Latin phrases.
Given that there’s a Clinton involved in the writing of this novel, one can’t help but spot parallels or moments of possible wish-fulfilment — the same can be said for Bill’s novels with James Patterson. If you’re (over-)familiar with the politics of the era, these moments might be easy to spot, but they do not detract from the novel. Rather, they add a certain passion in some areas, as well as a wistfulness for political competence. At other times, there are some nods to silly moments from the Clintons’ political careers. For example:
“But you did do drugs.”
“Who didn’t? I was a kid, they were our form of a martini. But I didn’t—”
“—inhale?” He smiled.
Fans of Penny’s novels will also be pleased by a certain cameo, late in the novel.
Overall, then, State of Terror is a very good political thriller. Clinton and Penny have created some great characters, and written a fast-moving, gripping story. I really hope the success of State of Terror is such that the two authors decide to work together again — on another Ellen Adams novel or otherwise, I shall be ready and waiting to make that pre-order. This is also the first novel of Penny’s that I’ve read — it won’t be the last, as I’ve bought the first couple of novels in the author’s Chief Inspector Gamache series.