The action in Spymaster starts, as it often does in a Brad Thor novel, in a picturesque location, in this case a remote woodland cabin in Norway where a mixed team of European special-ops types and a national police tactical unit make a raid on some bad actors they believe are cell members in the Peoples Revolutionary Front, a neo-Marxist group determined to undermine NATO and end multinational collusion against the workers and oppressed classes everywhere. If they weren’t such a band of murderous monsters, the PRF might seem quaint, a throwback to the hard-leftist anarchist anti-globalism gangs of the late ‘90s.
The bad guys in the Norwegian wood prove to be sophisticated, and the raid goes sideways as the would-be terrorists burn the place down and take out several of the good guys while in the process of immolating themselves. American operative Scot Harvath is able to overtake one escaping baddie who is fleeing with the group’s cellphones and various important documents.
Harvath is forced to kill the fellow in a fight, but the cache of phones provides key information that plunges Harvath and his team into a dash across Europe and Russia to track down the shadowy figures behind the PRF. As Harvath suspects from the start, the beating heart of darkness at the center of the terrorism wave is an old-school government actor determined to destabilize NATO in preparation for invasion. It isn’t giving anything away to say that the country starts with a funny-looking P and ends with a backward R.
Harvath is on their trail, but the bad guys are hacking away at NATO’s Article Five with a vengeance with a series of seemingly random terrorist attacks in Portugal, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere. As a set-piece example, Thor provides a wonderfully described vignette of a terrorist attack on “Figurati,” a swanky restaurant in Rome where the jet-set nibbles. It all is part of a plot to soften up the already sagging national will of European nations and to prepare the ground for a military invasion via Scandinavia.
To do that, Russia plans to bottle up the Baltic Sea by taking the Swedish island of Gotland. The military attack on Europe is imminent, and the GRU spymaster behind the PRF has a years-in-the-making sleeper cell in place on Gotland. He activates it. And it’s on this charming semi-rural island, which a reader with a yen for travel will soon long to visit (Thor comes from a travel-writing background), where Harvath’s team sets up shop and the bulk of the action takes place.
Back in the states, Harvath’s old boss is suffering from advancing Alzheimer’s. Reed Carlton, the true spymaster of the title, knows way too much, and all of the normal brakes on blurting it out start to crumble. Harvath’s friend and mentor has become the equivalent of a loose nuke.
As befits one of the creators of the old public television show “Traveling Lite,” Thor’s strengths are in his settings. Thor often picks out touristy spots for his climactic set pieces, and describes them in such glowing terms that the reader can’t be blamed for setting the book down for a quick check to find out, say, what economy tickets on the Jungfraubahn might cost for a family of four (and could you apply a Eurail Pass for a further discount?). The fiction writer in me also senses that Spymaster may have provided a juicy tax write-off for a spectacular trip to Scandinavia.
Spymaster is the eighteenth entry in Thor’s series of novels featuring intrepid American Scot Harvath. Harvath is a former SEAL. Over the course of the series, he starts out as Secret Service agent on the presidential detail, becomes a CIA agent, and quits in frustration to become a solitary actor. For the past three books, he’s been the chief contractor for a group the CIA hires when it has to do something useful and fast, as opposed to its usual red-tape, State Department-hampered shenanigans.
A conscience-tortured spy struggling to find moral clarity in a gray world Harvath is not. Harvath is very sure he is doing the right thing, even when no one else is. He’s also the guy who is going to survive a slaughter of the president’s Secret Service detail and end up saving the first daughter in the process. In Spymaster, Harvath’s character is a gloss, but in previous novels, we find that he has an interesting background as a former member of the U.S. national ski team who spent a couple of years bouncing around the globe competing.
He also has a distant but profound connection with his deceased father, who was also a SEAL and was killed in a clandestine operation. Thor occasionally makes use of Harvath’s deep background, and these are usually the series books that stick with a reader.
Among these are The Last Patriot, the best-selling novel so far in the series, and series opener The Lions of Lucerne, which has a preposterous plot, but some excellent characterization (and lots of great travelogue info dumps about Switzerland’s beautiful and accessible Interlaken region). A reader who wants more than a cardboard protagonist might start with the The Lions of Lucerne before tackling the Harvath we find in Spymaster.
The one stand-out character in Spymaster is 31-year-old Polish military intelligence officer Monika Jasinski, who is currently on assignment to the antiterrorism unit within NATO command. Thor uses her point of view for much of the novel, since Harvath by this point in his career knows way too much about what is actually going on to maintain constant suspense in the plot. Jasinki’s skepticism toward Harvath, whom she only gradually understands is a highly capable spy, leads to some nicely pointed exchanges as the mentor-student chemistry between the two develops.
Defending the West
Spymaster exhibits the main drawbacks of Thor’s thrillers, as well. First, Thor’s storytelling style is serviceable, but limited. His characterization doesn’t extend much past expository paragraphs, and as a result, his action sequences are often just not that pulse-pounding. Thor tends to get outside his character’s head in the midst of battle and describe the geometry of the set-up rather than viewing it all through the hero’s adrenaline-laced perceptions.
In Spymaster, what twists there are in the plot seem slight as a result. A couple of times bad guys get the drop on Harvath and the reader’s point of view suddenly goes into high-altitude drone mode. From there, the tables are turned so rapidly we don’t get to share in what must be a heart-stopping moment of dread for our hero.
Yet Thor is always clear in his action description, which is its own blessing. Thor’s thriller-lite sort of prose is far harder than it looks to produce, and takes innate talent to pull off effectively. I’ve edited many a writer who is otherwise highly intelligent and imaginative but can’t manage to produce a page of believable subject-verb-object storytelling to save his or her life. (I should add here that the company where I’m an editor is distributed, but not owned, by Thor’s publisher, Simon and Schuster).
Thor also has a propensity for telling us the exact physical heights and eye color of all his characters. This can drive a reader a little crazy picturing everyone lined up along a perp wall with measurement markings behind them. One thing we find out in every Harvath novel is that Harvath is five foot ten. This does seem a nice, attainable height for us armchair action-hero readers to aspire to.
Thor also has a habit of ladling on expository lumps. In some Harvath books, he manages to carefully marble in information he believes a reader ought to know. In Spymaster, Thor gives up and just pours it on, to the point of quoting portions of the NATO charter.
Of course, among thriller writers, Thor is hardly unique in this propensity. The difference is that most thriller writers are lefty conspiracy theorists to one degree or another, and their exposition is tortuous nonsense. Thor leans right politically, and it can be a huge relief for a reader of similar disposition to read (or, more likely, skim) one of Thor’s plot-justifying info-dumps and be able to say, “Well, that was endless, but for once I mostly agree.”
But while Spymaster and the Harvath series may be fast food reading, you can think of Brad Thor books as the Chick-fil-A sandwiches of thrillers. Thor always turns out a nicely researched quality product with a hero who is not going to suddenly take a dark turn and start questioning whether a country like the United States deserves to exist—or especially whether it deserves him to defend it. If you root for the triumph of the West, Scot Harvath is a hero who is always going to have your back.