"At Risk" is the debut thriller by Stella Rimington, former Director General of MI5. I didn't have high hopes of "At Risk" but I picked it up because I was curious to see how a woman with twenty-six years in the service would portray the counter-intelligence world of MI5. I've just bought the next three books in the series so you can count me as a new fan.
"At Risk" has a solid plot with a credible terrorist threat at the heart of it but it wasn't the plot than won me over, it was the point of view.
This isn't the black and white world of Jack Bauer, where our hero is using any mean necessary to defend the free world from evil foreigners intent upon mindless destruction. "At Risk" set in a world that is more nuanced and more complex than Jack Bauer's.
The terrorists in this book are in the UK to kill and to demoralise. They take the lives of anyone who threatens their mission and their mission will inflict death and pain. They are also dedicated, disciplined people who have strong reasons for what they do.
Liz Carlyle, the MI5 counter-intelligence officer hunting down the terrorists, does not carry a gun and no powers of arrest. Her job is to dig through the evidence to find the threat and prevent it. She does this in a down-to-earth methodical way, working closely with the police, the armed forces and MI6. To succeed, she has to find and shape data that will get her inside the heads of the terrorists.
To me, the way the data was assembled and the way the different groups worked together felt authentic. Liz Carlyle is completely believable and I want to see more of her in action. That I felt some empathy for the terrorists by the end and yet still wanted them stopped, shows that the book worked.
Overall, the book is well written, with a strong plot, good pacing, believable action and the ability to immerse me in the counter-terrorist world without drowning me in research.
There were a few places at the start of the book where I found the physical descriptions of the people and their body-language to be a little clumsy but things got much better once the story started to move.
The end of the book is surprising, memorable and refreshingly human. I'm on board for the rest of the ride with other eight books in the series now.
If you're interested in knowing more about the author, I've included Dame Stella Rimington's bio and interviews with BookBrowse and Nowtolove from when "At Risk" was released in 2004. They give some insight into how grounded in reality the book is and explain how MI5 compares to the CIA or FBI.