Books by Thor, Brad

Thor, Brad. Act of War. New York: Pocket Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-1713-5.
This is the fourteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel the author returns to the techno-thriller genre and places his characters, this time backed by a newly-elected U.S. president who is actually interested in defending the country, in the position of figuring out a complicated yet potentially devastating attack mounted by a nation state adversary following the doctrine of unrestricted warfare, and covering its actions by operating through non-state parties apparently unrelated to the aggressor.

The trail goes through Pakistan, North Korea, and Nashville, Tennessee, with multiple parties trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle while the clock is ticking. Intelligence missions are launched into North Korea and the Arab Emirates to try to figure out what is going on. Finally, as the nature of the plot becomes clear, Nicholas (the Troll) brings the tools of Big Data to bear on the mystery to avert disaster.

This is a workmanlike thriller and a fine “airplane book”. There is less shoot-em-up action than in other novels in the series, and a part of the suspense is supposed to be the reader's trying to figure out, along with the characters, the nature of the impending attack. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was obvious well before the half way point in the story the answer to the puzzle, and knowing this was a substantial spoiler for the rest of the book. I've thought and written quite a bit about this scenario, so I may have been more attuned to the clues than the average reader.

The author invokes the tired canard about NASA's priorities having been redirected toward reinforcing Muslim self-esteem. This is irritating (because it's false), but plays no major part in the story. Still, it's a good read, and I'll be looking forward to the next book in the series.

May 2015 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Apostle. New York: Pocket Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-8658-6.
This is the eighth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel covert operative Harvath has retired from government service and is enjoying an extended vacation in the Maine woods when he is summoned for an urgent meeting with recently-elected president Robert Alden. Alden informs Harvath that Julia Gallo, the daughter of fund-raiser and media baron Stephanie Gallo, to whom Alden owes a great deal of his recent electoral triumph, has been taken hostage in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have confirmed the hostage-taking and offered to exchange the younger Gallo for an al-Qaeda operative held in an Afghan prison. The Afghan government views putting this malefactor on trial as key to its legitimacy and will not countenance giving him up. Alden asks Harvath to go to Afghanistan, spring the terrorist from prison, and make the exchange, all beneath the radar to avoid damaging Alden's posture of being “tough on terror”. Harvath wonders why Alden is willing to undertake such risk for one hostage while so many others have fallen unremarked in Afghanistan, but accepts the mission.

Meanwhile, a junior Secret Service agent on the president's protection detail overhears a conversation between Stephanie Gallo and the president which indicates her power over him may be based in a dark secret which, if exposed, might end his presidency.

Most of the story is set in Afghanistan and the author has drawn upon his sources to craft a believable picture of that chaotic place. Perhaps acknowledging the shrinking presence of the U.S. on the world stage in the epoch in which the book was written, when Harvath calls in the cavalry, it might not be who you expect. The intrigue in Washington plays out in parallel.

This is a satisfying thriller which, unlike some of the earlier books in the series, works perfectly well if it's the first one you read. If you start here you'll miss details such as how Harvath met his girlfriend or came by his dog, but that's about it, and they play no part in the plot. There is the usual name-dropping of tactical gear which I used to find annoying but have now come to find somewhat charming and fun to look up whilst reading the novel.

September 2013 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Athena Project. New York: Pocket Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-9297-9.
This is the tenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel Harvath has only a walk-on rôle, while centre stage is occupied by the all-woman Athena Team of special operators we first encountered in the previous novel in the series, Foreign Influence (July 2010). These women, recruited from top competitors in extreme sports, are not only formidable at shooting, fighting, parachuting, underwater operations, and the rest of the panoply of skills of their male counterparts, they are able to blend in more easily in many contexts than their burly, buzz-cut colleagues and, when necessary, use their feminine wiles to disarm (sometimes literally) the adversary.

Deployed on a mission to seize and exfiltrate an arms merchant involved in a terrorist attack on U.S. civilians in Europe, the team ends up in a James Bond style shoot-out and chase through the canals of Venice. Meanwhile, grisly evidence in the Paraguayan jungle indicates that persons unknown may have come into possession of a Nazi wonder weapon from the last days of World War II and are bent on using it with potentially disastrous consequences.

The Athena Team must insinuate themselves into an underground redoubt in Eastern Europe, discover its mysteries, and figure out the connections to the actors plotting mass destruction, then neutralise them.

I've enjoyed all the Brad Thor novels I've read so far, but this one, in my opinion, doesn't measure up to the standard of those earlier in the series. First of all, the fundamental premise of the super-weapon at the centre of the plot is physically absurd, and all the arm-waving in the world can't make it plausible. Also, as Larry Niven observed, any society which develops such a technology will quickly self-destruct (which doesn't mean it's impossible, but may explain why we do not observe intelligent aliens in the universe). I found the banter among the team members and with their male colleagues contrived and tedious: I don't think such consummate professionals would behave in such a manner, especially while on the clock. Attention to detail on the little things is excellent, although that Air Force base in the Florida panhandle is “Eglin”, not “Elgin” (p. 202).

This is a well-crafted thriller and enjoyable “airplane book”. Once you get past the implausibility of the super-weapon (as many readers who have only heard of such concepts in the popular press will), the story moves right along. It's substantially harder to tell a story involving a team of four equals (albeit with different talents) than one with a central character such as Scot Harvath, and I don't think the author completely pulls it off: the women are not sufficiently distinguished from one another and tend to blend together as team members rather than be identified with their individual characteristics.

December 2013 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Black List. New York: Pocket Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-9302-0.
This is the twelfth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Brad Thor has remarked in interviews that he strives to write thrillers which anticipate headlines which will break after their publication, and with this novel he hits a grand slam.

Scot Harvath is ambushed in Paris by professional killers who murder a member of his team. After narrowly escaping, he goes to ground and covertly travels to a remote region in Basque country where he has trusted friends. He is then attacked there, again by trained killers, and he has to conclude that the probability is high that the internal security of his employer, the Carlton Group, has been breached, perhaps from inside.

Meanwhile, his employer, Reed Carlton, is attacked at his secure compound by an assault team and barely escapes with his life. When Carlton tries to use his back channels to contact members of his organisation, they all appear to have gone dark. To Carlton, a career spook with tradecraft flowing in his veins, this indicates his entire organisation has been wiped out, for no apparent motive and by perpetrators unknown.

Harvath, Carlton, and the infovore dwarf Nicholas, operating independently, must begin to pick up the pieces to figure out what is going on, while staying under the radar of a pervasive surveillance state which employs every technological means to track them down and target them for summary extra-judicial elimination.

If you pick up this book and read it today, you might think it's based upon the revelations of Edward Snowden about the abuses of the NSA conducting warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens. But it was published in 2012, a full year before the first of Snowden's disclosures. The picture of the total information awareness state here is, if anything, more benign than what we now know to be the case in reality. What is different is that when Harvath, Carlton, and Nicholas get to the bottom of the mystery, the reaction in high places is what one would hope for in a constitutional republic, as opposed to the “USA! USA! USA!” cheerleading or silence which has greeted the exposure of abuses by the NSA on the part of all too many people.

This is a prophetic thriller which demonstrates how the smallest compromises of privacy: credit card transactions, telephone call metadata, license plate readers, facial recognition, Web site accesses, search engine queries, etc. can be woven into a dossier on any person of interest which makes going dark to the snooper state equivalent to living technologically in 1950. This not just a cautionary tale for individuals who wish to preserve a wall of privacy around themselves from the state, but also a challenge for writers of thrillers. Just as mobile telephones would have wrecked the plots of innumerable mystery and suspense stories written before their existence, the emergence of the panopticon state will make it difficult for thriller writers to have both their heroes and villains operating in the dark. I am sure the author will rise to this challenge.

August 2014 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Blowback. New York: Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4516-0828-1.
This is the fourth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel, Harvath is involved in a botched takedown attempt against an al-Qaeda operative which, repeated endlessly on cable news channels, brings him and his superiors into the crosshairs of ambitious former first lady and carpetbagging Senator Helen Remington Carmichael, who views exposing Harvath and those who ordered the operation as her ticket to second place on the next Democratic presidential ticket.

As wise people do when faced with the flounderings of a wounded yet still dangerous superpower, Harvath gets out of Dodge and soon finds himself on the trail of a plot, grounded in the arcane science of paleopathology and dating from Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, which threatens a genocide of non-believers in the Dar al-Harb and unification of the Ummah under a new caliphate. Scientists have been disappearing, and as Harvath follows the trail of the assassin, he discovers the sinister thread that ties their work, performed in isolation, together into a diabolical scheme.

Harvath teams up with a plucky lady paleopathologist (Harvath's female companions seem to adapt to commando missions as readily as Doctor Who's to multiverse displacement) and together they begin to follow the threads which lead to an horrific plot based on a weapon of mass destruction conceived in antiquity which has slumbered for millennia in an ice cavern.

What more could you ask for? Politics, diseases in antiquity, ice mummies, evil geniuses in Swiss mountain redoubts (heh!), glider assaults, mass murder with the chosen protected by mass marketing, and a helicopter assault on a terrorist icon in a Muslim country—works for me!

This is a thriller, and it delivers the thrills in abundance. But this is Fourmilab, and you expect the quibbles, don't you? So here we go, and without spoilers! The Super Vivat motor-gliders used to assault the mountaintop are said in chapter 72 to be capable of retracting the propeller into the nose of the fuselage and retracting and extending their landing gear. Neither is correct—the propeller can be feathered but not retracted, and the landing gear is fixed.

This is a page-turner, and it succeeds at its mission and will send you off to read the next in the series. The solution to the chaos in the Islamic world advanced here by the bad guys is, in fact, one I've been thinking about as less worse than most of the alternatives for more than decade. Could the “Arab Spring” give way to an “Ottoman Fall”? Let's talk Turkey.

May 2011 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Code of Conduct. New York: Atria Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-1715-9.
This is the fifteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel, the author “goes big”, with a thriller whose global implications are soundly grounded in genuine documents of the anti-human “progressive” fringe and endorsed, at least implicitly, by programmes of the United Nations.

A short video, recorded at a humanitarian medical clinic in the Congo, shows a massacre of patients and staff which seems to make no sense at all. The operator of the clinic retains the Carlton Group to investigate the attack on its facility, and senior operative Scot Harvath is dispatched to lead a team to find out what happened and why. Murphy's Law applies at all times and places, but Murphy seems to pull extra shifts in the Congo, and Harvath's team must overcome rebels, the elements, and a cast-iron humanitarian to complete its mission.

As pieces of evidence are assembled, it becomes clear that the Congo massacre was a side-show of a plot with global implications, orchestrated by a cabal of international élites and supported by bien pensants in un-elected senior administrative positions in governments. Having bought into the anti-human agenda, they are willing to implement a plan to “restore equilibrium” and “ensure sustainability” whatever the human toll.

This is less a shoot-'em-up action thriller (although there is some of that, to be sure), than the unmasking of a hideous plot and take-down of it once it is already unleashed. It is a thoroughly satisfying yarn, and many readers may not be aware of the extent to which the goals advocated by the villains have been openly stated by senior officials of both the U.S. government and international bodies.

This is not one of those thrillers where once the dust settles things are left pretty much as they were before. The world at the end of this book will have been profoundly changed from that at the start. It will be interesting to see how the author handles this in the next volume in the series.

For a high-profile summer thriller by a blockbuster author from a major publishing house (Atria is an imprint of Simon & Schuster), which debuted at number 3 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, there are a surprising number of copy editing and factual errors, even including the platinum standard, an idiot “It's” on p. 116. Something odd appears to have happened in formatting the Kindle edition (although I haven't confirmed that it doesn't also affect the print edition): a hyphen occasionally appears at the end of lines, separated by a space from the preceding word, where no hyphenation is appropriate, for example: “State - Department”.

July 2015 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The First Commandment. New York: Pocket Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4516-3566-9.
This is the sixth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In the aftermath of the shocking conclusion to the previous novel, Takedown (November 2011), Department of Homeland Security agent Scot Harvath discovers that he, personally, has become the target of a plot by person or persons unknown, aimed at individuals close to him in a series of attacks of Biblical proportions.

When he starts to follow the trail of evidence back to the source, he is told to stand down by no less than the president of the United States, who declines to specify a reason. Harvath is not a man easily dissuaded, especially when convinced that his loved ones and colleagues are in imminent danger simply due to their association with him, and he goes rogue, enlisting friends in the shadowy world of private security to dig into the mystery. This doesn't sit well with the president, who puts Harvath on a proscription list and dispatches a CIA “Omega Team” to deal with him. At one point a CIA agent and friend, to whom Harvath protests that he has every right to protect those close to him, responds “You don't have any rights. Jack Rutledge is the president of the United States. When he tells you to do something, you do it.” (At this point, I'd have preferred if Harvath decked the CIA goon and explained to him that his rights come from God, not the president of the United States, and that while a politician may try to infringe those rights, they remain inherent to every person. But maybe Harvath has been working so long for the slavers that he's forgotten that.)

As Harvath follows the murky threads, he comes across evidence which suggests a cover-up extending into the oval office, and is forced into an uneasy détente with his nemesis, the pint-sized supervillain known as the Troll, whose data mining prowess permits connecting the dots in an otherwise baffling situation. (People in Harvath's line of work tend not to lack for enemies, after all.)

I found this to be the best Brad Thor novel I've read so far—it's lighter on the action and gadgets and more concentrated on the mystery and the motivations of the malefactors. I prefer to read a series of novels in the order in which they describe the life of the protagonist. This book does contain sufficient background and context so that it will work as a stand-alone thriller, but if you haven't read the previous novels, you'll miss a lot of the complexity of Harvath's relationships with characters who appear here.

July 2012 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Foreign Agent. New York: Atria Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-8935-4.
This is the sixteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). After the momentous events chronicled in Code of Conduct (July 2015) (which figure only very peripherally in this volume), Scot Harvath continues his work as a private operator for the Carlton Group, developing information and carrying out operations mostly against the moment's top-ranked existential threat to the imperium on the Potomac, ISIS. When a CIA base in Iraq is ambushed by a jihadi assault team, producing another coup for the ISIS social media operation, Harvath finds himself in the hot seat, since the team was operating on intelligence he had provided through one of his sources. When he goes to visit the informant, he finds him dead, the apparent victim of a professional hit. Harvath has found that never believing in coincidences is a key to survival in his line of work.

Aided by diminutive data miner Nicholas (known as The Troll before he became a good guy), Harvath begins to follow the trail from his murdered tipster back to those who might also be responsible for the ISIS attack in Iraq. Evidence begins to suggest that a more venerable adversary, the Russkies, might be involved. As the investigation proceeds, another high-profile hit is made, this time the assassination of a senior U.S. government official visiting a NATO ally. Once again, ISIS social media trumpets the attack with graphic video.

Meanwhile, back in the capital of the blundering empire, an ambitious senator with his eyes on the White House is embarrassing the CIA and executive branch with information he shouldn't have. Is there a mole in the intelligence community, and might that be connected to the terrorist attacks? Harvath follows the trail, using his innovative interrogation techniques and, in the process, encounters people whose trail he has crossed in earlier adventures.

This novel spans the genres of political intrigue, espionage procedural, and shoot-em-up thriller and does all of them well. In the end, the immediate problem is resolved, and the curtain opens for a dramatic new phase, driven by a president who is deadly serious about dealing with international terror, of U.S. strategy in the Near East and beyond. And that's where everything fell apart for this reader. In the epilogue, which occurs one month after the conclusion of the main story, the U.S. president orders a military operation which seems not only absurdly risky, but which I sincerely hope his senior military commanders, whose oath is to the U.S. Constitution, not the President, would refuse to carry out, as it would constitute an act of war against a sovereign state without either a congressional declaration of war or the post-constitutional “authorisation for the use of military force” which seems to have supplanted it. Further, the president threatens to unilaterally abrogate, without consultation with congress, a century-old treaty which is the foundation of the political structure of the Near East if Islam, its dominant religion, refuses to reform itself and renounce violence. This is backed up by a forged video blaming an airstrike on another nation.

In all of his adventures, Scot Harvath has come across as a good and moral man, trying to protect his country and do his job in a dangerous and deceptive world. After this experience, one wonders whether he's having any second thoughts about the people for whom he's working.

There are some serious issues underlying the story, in particular why players on the international stage who would, at first glance, appear to be natural adversaries, seem to be making common cause against the interests of the United States (to the extent anybody can figure out what those might be from its incoherent policy and fickle actions), and whether a clever but militarily weak actor might provoke the U.S. into doing its bidding by manipulating events and public opinion so as to send the bungling superpower stumbling toward the mastermind's adversary. These are well worth pondering in light of current events, but largely lost in the cartoon-like conclusion of the novel.

November 2016 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Foreign Influence. New York: Atria Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-8659-3.
Thanks to the inexorable working of Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, government agencies, even those most central to the legitimate functions of government and essential to its survival and the safety of the citizenry, will inevitably become sclerotic and ineffective, serving their employees at the expense of the taxpayers. The only way to get things done is for government to outsource traditionally governmental functions to private sector contractors, and recent years have seen even military operations farmed out to private security companies.

With the intelligence community having become so dysfunctional and hamstrung by feel-good constraints upon their actions and fear of political retribution against operatives, it is only natural that intelligence work—both collection and covert operations—will move to the private sector, and in this novel, Scot Harvath has left government service to join the shadowy Carlton Group, providing innovative services to the Department of Defense. Freed of bureaucratic constraints, Harvath's inner klootzak (read the book) is fully unleashed. Less than halfway into the novel, here's Harvath reporting to his boss, Reed Carlton:

“So let me get this straight,” said the Old Man. “You trunked two Basque separatists, Tasered a madam and a bodyguard—after she kicked your tail—then bagged and dragged her to some French farmhouse where you threatened to disfigure her, then iceboarded a concierge, shot three hotel security guards, kidnapped the wife of one of Russia's wealthiest mobsters, are now sitting in a hotel in Marseille waiting for a callback from the man I sent you over there to apprehend. Is that about right?”
Never a dull moment with the Carlton Group on the job!

Aggressive action is called for, because Harvath finds himself on the trail of a time-sensitive plot to unleash terror attacks in Europe and the U.S., launched by an opaque conspiracy where nothing is as it appears to be. Is this a jihadist plot, or the first volley in an asymmetric warfare conflict launched by an adversary, or a terror network hijacked by another mysterious non-state actor with its own obscure agenda? As Harvath follows the threads, two wisecracking Chicago cops moonlighting to investigate a hit and run accident stumble upon a domestic sleeper cell about to be activated by the terror network. And as the action becomes intense, we make the acquaintance of an Athena Team, an all-babe special forces outfit which is expected to figure prominently in the next novel in the saga and will doubtless improve the prospects of these books being picked up by Hollywood. With the clock ticking, these diverse forces (and at least one you'll never see coming) unite to avert a disastrous attack on American soil. The story is nicely wrapped up at the end, but the larger mystery remains to be pursued in subsequent books.

I find Brad Thor's novels substantially more “edgy” than those of Vince Flynn or Tom Clancy—like Ian Fleming, he's willing to entertain the reader with eccentric characters and situations even if they strain the sense of authenticity. If you enjoy this kind of thing—and I do, very much—you'll find this an entertaining thriller, perfect “airplane book”, and look forward to the next in the series. A podcast interview with the author is available.

July 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Full Black. New York: Pocket Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4165-8662-3.
This is the eleventh in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Unlike the previous novel, The Athena Project (December 2013), in which Harvath played only an incidental part, here Harvath once again occupies centre stage. The author has also dialed back on some of the science-fictiony stuff which made Athena less than satisfying to me: this book is back in the groove of the geopolitical thriller we've come to expect from Thor.

A high-risk covert operation to infiltrate a terrorist cell operating in Uppsala, Sweden to identify who is calling the shots on terror attacks conducted by sleeper cells in the U.S. goes horribly wrong, and Harvath not only loses almost all of his team, but fails to capture the leaders of the cell. Meanwhile, a ruthless and carefully scripted hit is made on a Hollywood producer, killing two filmmakers which whom he is working on a documentary project: evidence points to the hired killers being Russian spetsnaz, which indicates whoever ordered the hit has both wealth and connections.

When a coordinated wave of terror attacks against soft targets in the U.S. is launched, Harvath, aided by his former nemesis turned ally Nicholas (“the troll”), must uncover the clues which link all of this together, working against time, as evidence suggests additional attacks are coming. This requires questioning the loyalty of previously-trusted people and investigating prominent figures generally considered above suspicion.

With the exception of chapter 32, which gets pretty deep into the weeds of political economy and reminded me a bit of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010) (thankfully, it is much shorter), the story moves right along and comes to a satisfying conclusion. The plot is in large part based upon the Chinese concept of “unrestricted warfare”, which is genuine (this is not a spoiler, as the author mentions it in the front material of the book).

March 2014 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Hidden Order. New York: Pocket Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4767-1710-4.
This is the thirteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Earlier novels have largely been in the mainstream of the “techno-thriller” genre, featuring missions in exotic locations confronting shadowy adversaries bent on inflicting great harm. The present book is a departure from this formula, being largely set in the United States and involving institutions considered pillars of the establishment such as the Federal Reserve System and the Central Intelligence Agency.

A CIA operative “accidentally” runs into a senior intelligence official of the Jordanian government in an airport lounge in Europe, who passes her disturbing evidence that members of a now-disbanded CIA team of which she was a member were involved in destabilising governments now gripped with “Arab Spring” uprisings and next may be setting their sights on Jordan.

Meanwhile, Scot Harvath, just returned from a harrowing mission on the high seas, is taken by his employer, Reed Carlton, to discreetly meet a new client: the Federal Reserve. The Carlton Group is struggling to recover from the devastating blow it took in the previous novel, Black List (August 2014), and its boss is willing to take on unconventional missions and new clients, especially ones “with a license to print their own money”. The chairman of the Federal Reserve has recently and unexpectedly died and the five principal candidates to replace him have all been kidnapped, almost simultaneously, across the United States. These people start turning up dead, in circumstances with symbolism dating back to the American revolution.

Investigation of the Jordanian allegations is shut down by the CIA hierarchy, and has to be pursued through back channels, involving retired people who know how the CIA really works. Evidence emerges of a black program that created weapons of frightful potential which may have gone even blacker and deeper under cover after being officially shut down.

Earlier Brad Thor novels were more along the “U-S-A! U-S-A!” line of most thrillers. Here, the author looks below the surface of highly dubious institutions (“The Federal Reserve is about as federal as Federal Express”) and evil that flourishes in the dark, especially when irrigated with abundant and unaccountable funds. Like many Americans, Scot Harvath knew little about the Federal Reserve other than it had something to do with money. Over the course of his investigations he, and the reader, will learn many disturbing things about its dodgy history and operations, all accurate as best I can determine.

The novel is as much police procedural as thriller, with Harvath teamed with a no-nonsense Boston Police Department detective, processing crime scenes and running down evidence. The story is set in an unspecified near future (the Aerion Supersonic Business Jet is in operation). All is eventually revealed in the end, with a resolution in the final chapter devoutly to be wished, albeit highly unlikely to occur in the cesspool of corruption which is real-world Washington. There is less action and fancy gear than in most Harvath novels, but interesting characters, an intricate mystery, and a good deal of information of which many readers may not be aware.

A short prelude to this novel, Free Fall, is available for free for the Kindle. It provides the background of the mission in progress in which we first encounter Scot Harvath in chapter 2 here. My guess is that this chapter was originally part of the manuscript and was cut for reasons of length and because it spent too much time on a matter peripheral to the main plot. It's interesting to read before you pick up Hidden Order, but if you skip it you'll miss nothing in the main story.

December 2014 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Last Patriot. London: Pocket Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84739-195-7.
This is a page-turning thriller which requires somewhat more suspension of disbelief than the typical book of the genre. The story involves, inter alia, radical Islam, the assassination of Mohammed, the Barbary pirates, Thomas Jefferson, a lost first edition of Don Quixote, puzzle boxes, cryptography, car bombs, the French DST, the U.S. president, and a plan to undermine the foundations of one of the world's great religions.

If this seems to cross over into the territory of a Dan Brown novel or the National Treasure movies, it does, and like those entertainments, you'll enjoy the ride more if you don't look too closely at the details or ask questions like, “Why is the President of the United States, with the resources of the NSA at his disposal, unable to break a simple cylinder substitution cipher devised more than two centuries ago?”. Still, if you accept this book for what it is, it's a fun read; this would make an excellent “airplane book”, at least as long as you aren't flying to Saudi Arabia—the book is banned in that country.

A U.S. edition is available.

March 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Lions of Lucerne. New York: Pocket Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7434-3674-8.
This was the author's first published novel, which introduced Scot Harvath, the ex-Navy SEAL around whose exploits his subsequent thrillers have centred. In the present book, Harvath has been recruited into the Secret Service and is in charge of the U.S. president's advance team and security detail for a ski trip to Utah which goes disastrously wrong when an avalanche wipes out the entire Secret Service field team except for Harvath, leaving the president missing and his daughter grievously injured. This shock is compounded manyfold when evidence indicates that the president has been kidnapped in an elaborate plot, which is soon confirmed by an incontrovertible communication from the kidnappers.

If things weren't bad enough for the seriously battered Harvath, still suffering from a concussion and “sprained body”, he finds himself framed as the person who leaked the security arrangements to the kidnappers and for the murder of two people trying to bring evidence regarding the plot to the attention of the authorities.

Harvath decides the only way he can clear his name is to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and rescue the president himself and so, grasping at the only thread of evidence he has, travels incognito to Switzerland, where he begins to unravel the details of the plot, identify the conspirators, and discover where the president is being held and devise a plan to rescue him. You don't often come across a Swiss super-villain, but there's one here, complete with an Alpine redoubt worth of a Bond blackguard.

This is a first novel, and it shows. Thor's mastery of the craft of the thriller, both in storytelling and technical detail, has improved over the years. If I hadn't read two of the more recent books, I might have been inclined to give it up after this one, but knowing what's coming, I'll continue to enjoy books from this series. In the present story, we have a vast disparity between the means (an intricate and extremely risky plot to kidnap the U.S. president) and the ends (derailing the passage of an alternative energy bill like “cap and trade”), carried out by an international conspiracy so vast that its security would almost be certain to be quickly compromised, but which is, instead, revealed through a series of fantastically improbable coincidences. Scot Harvath is pursued by two independent teams of assassins who may be the worst shots in the entire corpus of bestselling thrillers. And the Swiss authorities simply letting somebody go who smuggled a gun into Switzerland, sprayed gunfire around a Swiss city (damaging a historical landmark in the process), and then broke into a secret Swiss military base doesn't sound like the Switzerland with which I'm acquainted.

Still, this is well deserving of the designation “thriller”, and it will keep you turning the pages. It only improves from here, but I'd start with one of the more recent novels.

October 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Path of the Assassin. New York: Pocket Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7434-3676-2.
This, the second in the author's Scot Harvath saga, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010), starts with Agent Harvath, detached from the Secret Service and charged with cleaning up loose ends from events in the previous book, finding himself stalked and repeatedly preempted by a mysterious silver-eyed assassin who eliminates those linked to the plot he's investigating before they can be captured. Meanwhile, the Near East is careening toward war after a group calling itself the “Hand of God” commits atrocities upon Muslim holy sites, leaving a signature including the Star of David and the message “Terror for Terror”. Although the Israeli government denies any responsibility, there is substantial sympathy for these attacks within Israel, and before long reprisal attacks are mounted and raise tensions to the breaking point.

Intelligence indicates that the son of Abu Nidal has re-established his father's terrorist network and enlisted a broad coalition of Islamic barbarians in its cause. This is confirmed when a daring attack is mounted against a publicity stunt flight from the U.S. to Egypt which Harvath is charged to defeat.

And now it gets a little weird. We are expected to believe that, in just weeks or months, a public relations agent from Chicago, Meg Cassidy, whose spontaneous bravery brought down the hijackers in Cairo, could be trained to become a fully-qualified Special Forces operative, not only with the physical stamina which is found only in the best of the best, but also knowledge of a wide variety of weapons systems and technologies which veteran snake eaters spend years acquiring in the most demanding of conditions. This is as difficult to believe as the premise in G.I. Jane, and actually less so, since in that fantasy the woman in question actually wanted to become a commando.

This is a pretty good thriller, but you get the sense that Thor is still mastering the genre in this novel. He does realise that in the first novel he backed his protagonist into a corner by making him a Secret Service agent and works that out with the aid of a grateful president who appoints him to a much more loose cannon position in “Homeland Security”, which should make all of the dozens of lovers of liberty remaining in the United States shudder at that forbidding phrase.

December 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. State of the Union. New York: Pocket Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7434-3678-6.
This is the third in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). How refreshing to read a post-Cold War thriller in which the Russkies are threatening nuclear terror to reassert a strategy of global hegemony which only went underground with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Whatever happened, anyway, to all of those suitcase nukes which multiple sources said went missing when the Soviet Union dissolved, and which some Soviet defectors claimed had been smuggled into caches in the U.S and Europe to be used as a last-ditch deterrent should war be imminent? Suppose a hard core of ex-Soviet military officers, with the implicit approval of the Russian government, were to attempt a “Hail Mary” pass to win the Cold War in one masterstroke?

I have nattered in reviews of previous novels in this series about Thor's gradually mastering the genre of the thriller. No more—with this one he's entirely up to speed, and it just gets better from here on. Not only are we treated to a Cold War scenario, the novel is written in the style of a period espionage novel in which nothing may be what it appears, and the reader, along with the principal characters, is entirely in the fog as to what is actually going on for the first quarter of the book.

Quibbles? Yes, I have a few. In his quest for authenticity, the author often pens prose which comes across like Hollywood product placement:

… The team was outfitted in black, fire-retardant Nomex fatigues, HellStorm tactical assault gloves, and First Choice body armor. Included with the cache laid out by the armorer, were several newly arrived futuristic .40-caliber Beretta CX4 Storm carbines, as well as Model 96 Beretta Vertex pistols, also in .40 caliber. There was something about being able to interchange their magazines that Harvath found very comforting.

A Picatinny rail system allowed him to outfit the CX4 Storm with an under-mounted laser sight and an above-mounted Leupold scope. …

Ka ching! Ka ching! Ka ching!

I have no idea if the author or publisher were paid for mentioning this most excellent gear for breaking things and killing bad guys, but that's how it reads.

But, hey, what's not to like about a novel which includes action scenes on a Russian nuclear powered icebreaker in the Arctic? Been there—done that!

February 2011 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Takedown. New York: Pocket Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4516-3615-4.
This is the fifth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this episode, Harvath, an agent for a covert branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, completes a snatch and exfiltration of a terrorist bombmaker granted political asylum in Canada, delivers him into custody in Manhattan, and plans to spend a lazy fourth of July holiday in the Big Apple with one of his closest friends, a Delta Force operative recently retired after a combat injury. Their bar-hopping agenda is rudely interrupted by an escalating series of terrorist attacks which culminate in bridge and tunnel bombings which, along with sniper and rocket-propelled grenade attacks on boat and air traffic, isolate Manhattan from the mainland and inflict massive civilian casualties.

As Harvath establishes contact with his superiors, he discovers he is the only operative in the city and, worse, that a sequence of inexplicable and extremely violent attacks on targets irrelevant to any known terrorist objective seems to indicate the attacks so far, however horrific, may be just a diversion and/or intended to facilitate a further agenda. Without support or hope of reinforcement from his own agency, he recruits a pick-up team of former special operators recovering from the physical and psychological consequences of combat injuries he met at the Veterans Affairs hospital New York as the attacks unfolded and starts to follow the trail of the terrorists loose in Manhattan. As the story develops, layer after layer of deception is revealed, not only on the part of the terrorists and the shadowy figures behind them and pulling their strings, but also within the U.S. government, reaching all the way to the White House. And if you thought you'd heard the last of the dinky infovore Troll and his giant Ovcharkas, he's back!

This is a well-crafted thriller and will keep you turning the pages. That said, I found it somewhat odd that a person with such a sense of honour and loyalty to his friends and brothers in arms as Harvath would so readily tolerate deception among his superiors which led directly to their deaths, regardless of the purported “national security” priorities. It is indicative of how rapidly the American Empire is sliding into the abyss that outrageous violations of human rights, the rule of law, and due process which occur in this story to give it that frisson of edginess that Thor seeks in his novels now seem tame compared to remote-controlled murder by missile of American citizens in nations with which the U.S. is not at war ordered by a secret committee on the sole authority of the president. Perhaps as the series progresses, we'll encounter triple zero agents—murder by mouse click.

As usual, I have a few quibbles.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • The president's press secretary does not write his speeches. This is the job of speechwriters, one or more of whom usually accompanies the president even on holiday. (Chapter 18)
  • The Surgeon General is not the president's personal physician. (Chapter 42)
  • If I were rappelling through a manhole several stories into the bowels of Manhattan, I think I'd use a high tensile strength tripod rather than the “high tinsel” tripod used in chapter 59. Now if the bad guy was way up in a Christmas tree….
  • In chapter 100, the Troll attaches a “lightweight silencer” to his custom-built rifle firing the .338 Lapua sniper round. Even if you managed to fit a suppressor to a rifle firing this round and it effectively muffled the sound of the muzzle blast (highly dubious), there would be no point in doing so because the bullet remains supersonic more than a kilometre from the muzzle (depending on altitude and temperature), and the shock wave from the bullet would easily be audible anywhere in Gibraltar. Living across the road from a rifle range, I'm acutely aware of the sound of supersonic bullets coming more or less in my direction, and these are just 5.56 and 7.62 NATO, not Lapua “reach out and whack someone” ammo.
Spoilers end here.  

November 2011 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Use of Force. New York: Atria Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4767-8939-2.
This is the seventeenth novel in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). As this book begins, Scot Harvath, operative for the Carlton Group, a private outfit that does “the jobs the CIA won't do” is under cover at the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. He and his team are tracking a terrorist thought to be conducting advance surveillance for attacks within the U.S. Only as the operation unfolds does he realise he's walked into the middle of a mass casualty attack already in progress. He manages to disable his target, but another suicide bomber detonates in a crowded area, with many dead and injured.

Meanwhile, following the capsizing of a boat smuggling “migrants” into Sicily, the body of a much-wanted and long-sought terrorist chemist, known to be researching chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, is fished out of the Mediterranean. Why would he, after flying under the radar for years in the Near East and Maghreb, be heading to Europe? The CIA reports, “Over the last several months, we've been picking up chatter about an impending series of attacks, culminating in something very big, somewhere in Europe” … “We think that whatever he was planning, it's ready to go operational.”

With no leads other than knowledge from a few survivors of the sinking that the boat sailed from Libya and the name of the migrant smuggler who arranged their passage, Harvath sets off under cover to that country to try to find who arranged the chemist's passage and his intended destination in Europe. Accompanied by his pick-up team from Burning Man (given the urgency, there wasn't time to recruit one more familiar with the region), Harvath begins, in his unsubtle way, to locate the smuggler and find out what he knows. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in such operations, there is somebody else with the team who doesn't figure in its official roster—a fellow named Murphy.

Libya is chaotic and dangerous enough under any circumstances, but when you whack the hornets' nest, things can get very exciting in short order, and not in a good way. Harvath and his team find themselves in a mad chase and shoot-out, and having to summon assets which aren't supposed to be there, in order to survive.

Meanwhile, another savage terrorist attack in Europe has confirmed the urgency of the threat and that more are likely to come. And back in the imperial capital, intrigue within the CIA seems aimed at targeting Harvath's boss and the head of the operation. Is it connected somehow? It's time to deploy the diminutive super-hacker Nicholas and one of the CIA's most secret and dangerous computer security exploits in a honeypot operation to track down the source of the compromise.

If it weren't bad enough being chased by Libyan militias while trying to unravel an ISIS terror plot, Harvath soon finds himself in the lair of the Calabrian Mafia, and being thwarted at every turn by civil servants insisting he play by the rules when confronting those who make their own rules. Finally, multiple clues begin to limn the outline of the final attack, and it is dire indeed. Harvath must make an improbable and uneasy alliance to confront it.

The pacing of the book is somewhat odd. There is a tremendous amount of shoot-’em-up action in the middle, but as the conclusion approaches and the ultimate threat must be dealt with, it's as if the author felt himself running out of typewriter ribbon (anybody remember what that was?) and having to wind things up in just a few pages. Were I his editor, I'd have suggested trimming some of the detail in the middle and making the finale more suspenseful. But then, what do I know? Brad Thor has sold nearly fifteen million books, and I haven't. This is a perfectly workable thriller which will keep you turning the pages, but I didn't find it as compelling as some of his earlier novels. The attention to detail and accuracy are, as one has come to expect, superb. You don't need to have read any of the earlier books in the series to enjoy this one; what few details you need to know are artfully mentioned in passing.

The next installment in the Scot Harvath saga, Spymaster, will be published in July, 2018.

May 2018 Permalink