Today, I'm happy to review The Cairo Affair, a fantastic new spy thriller from Olen Steinhauer.
This book completely blew me away, and I can't wait for all of you to read it!
Hardcover, 416 pages
Expected publication: March 18th 2014 by Minotaur Books
Format read: ARC courtesy of publisher
Stan Bertolli, a Cairo-based CIA agent, has fielded his share of midnight calls. But his heart skips a beat when he hears the voice of the only woman he ever truly loved, calling to ask why her husband has been assassinated.
Omar Halawi has worked in Egyptian intelligence for years, and he knows how to play the game. Foreign agents pass him occasional information, he returns the favor, and everyone's happy. But the murder of a diplomat in Hungary has ripples all the way to Cairo, and Omar must follow the fall-out wherever it leads.
American analyst Jibril Aziz knows more about Stumbler, a covert operation rejected by the CIA, than anyone. So when it appears someone else has obtained a copy of the blueprints, Jibril alone knows the danger it represents.
As these players converge in Cairo in The Cairo Affair, Olen Steinhauer's masterful manipulations slowly unveil a portrait of a marriage, a jigsaw puzzle of loyalty and betrayal, against a dangerous world of political games where allegiances are never clear and outcomes are never guaranteed.
But man, this book blew me away. Olen Steinauer’s book is exciting, enjoyable, and educational. His narrative is split between numerous first-person perspectives from key characters. As the story progress, the tale also delves deeper into these characters’ oft-separate histories.
This provides understanding as to how seemingly random individuals and events can intersect in a single moment into revolutions and murder. The Cairo Affair is written in a fashion similar to that of the films Babel and Traffic, only on a much grander scale.
Things that worked:
Not only does this book draw the reader in with its suspenseful and highly readable narrative, but it also is one thoroughly grounded in the world of international politics. Leaders, movements, historical events, and organizations discussed here are all quite well researched. A casual reader who knows little about the worlds of espionage, the Arab Spring, or even prewar Yugoslavia, would find themselves with a much expanded knowledge base after reading this work of fiction.
It is quite striking how a book so grounded in history and fact is also such a brisk and enjoyable read. Olen Steinhauer has managed to do the impossible: fuse an entertaining thriller with a fantastic non-fiction on Middle Eastern politics. It is truly remarkable to behold. I loved every second of it.
The main protagonist in this tale is a women suffering from guilt: the guilt of losing her husband and the guilt of betraying his love to another. It is this guilt that drives her to understand just why her husband died. As a young woman, Sophie and her new husband traveled Europe and sought to see the world as it really is. Now, two decades later, with death and suspicion all around her, she finally is able to pull back the wool of deception that has lingered over her eyes for so long.
Sophie is flawed, deeply flawed. She realizes this, yet there is little she can do to change it at the moment. Indeed, she is somewhat unremarkable by modern heroine standards: complicated, burdened, yet ill informed. However, in the simplicity of The Cairo Affair’s narrative, this is how she becomes noble. With so many complex events swirling around her, including revolutions, murders, and betrayal, a lesser person would have simply pulled up shop and flew home to America. She doesn’t. She perseveres and fights to know the truth. This makes her amazing, and her character is a true joy to read and, eventually, to fully comprehend.
After the final curtain call for our major players has transpired, the events of The Cairo Affair do continue. We’re treated to a postscript of secondary players that emphasizes how, as much as we wish the world was made better by all this suffering and strife, all too often, it falls prey once more to these centrifugal forces. Enemies of today are friends of tomorrow, and visa versa. The world keeps on ticking. Does anyone ever really change?
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
Ironically, it is the unfolding of the final secret, the final betrayal, which I felt was not as strong as it could have been. Given the events that had already unfolded throughout the previous 350+ pages, this act of original sin comes across as a bit tame. We needed to know this piece of information, without it the whole of the story would collapse.
However, when surrounded by so much sin and evil, this original secret can come across as lackluster. Not the fault of the writer at all, any real person who had committed to such an action could easily be trapped by its fate for the rest of their days. But, when compared to the murder and mayhem that unfolds in the preceding chapters, this event can’t help but come across as a tad weak. This, I would say, is the harder side of writing such a realistic and fact-based novel.
Disclaimer: I requested an advanced reader copy of The Cairo Affair from the publisher for the purposes of reviewing it. My opinion was not influenced in anyway.