Penny Kessler makes this work. She’s the main character, and if she’s gonna be a lowly intern working at the US Embassy in Turkey who is suddenly thrown, via a bomb blast, into a deadly adventure where your friends may be trying harder to kill you than your enemies, where the action never stops and Bond-like resourcefulness and instincts are required to make it to Chapter 5 (and that’s the easy part, compared to later)...then Penny Kessler needs to be smart. Penny needs to be special, and her dialogue at the Embassy shindig, before the big boom, and then throughout the craziness, needs to show she thinks sharp and fast. So, she’s a quick wit and a wily verbal fencer, and although that doesn’t mean she knows how to defuse a nuclear warhead or hack NASA, it does mean I know exactly how intelligent and quick-witted she is before everything goes to hell in her world, and I can believe that she has what it takes to wend her way through a potentially lethal Spy maze that would test Bourne.
With shadowy assassins in Turkey and also someone, or some people, in the CIA seemingly trying to kill her, this story seems early on to be a case of “what does she know, that everyone wants her dead? does she even know what she knows? was she passed something that makes her a target? did she hear something she shouldn’t have? what makes everyone in Turkey suddenly want to question and then kill, or just kill, Penny Kessler? or is that all a trick, and there is more to Penny than she seems? what about Connor of the CIA, will he get wise and help her run, or is he just gonna follow orders and be a pawn in the ‘let’s shut down Penny’ tournament? did she get an email or a text that marked her for death? don’t know yet...RUN, Penny!”.
Run, but think too, Ms. Kessler. And she does. This leads me to mention that I agree with the reviews that say, basically, “okay, ignore the le Carre comparisons you’ve been bumping into, this is more of an action-fest, more in the line of a Ludlum or even a Lee Child effort than some kind of slow-burn, quiet, “let’s examine the psychology of a traitor” affair. this is intelligent in its plotting, but it’s built to be fun, to be continually in motion, and suspenseful. Lots of twists, lots of “oh, you’re walking towards someone you really shouldn’t trust, but don’t feel bad, Penny, I bought the act, too..oop, bullets coming! Legs, save brain again!”.
Yeah, okay, so like all these action-fests, these heroes seem to magically mess up the villains’ targeting skills, but in this case, like I said, the author has worked so hard to make our heroine smart enough to believably navigate this hall of evil, spy-slicing, exploding mirrors, I’ll allow her a few dodged bullets.
Spy movies this resembles would be Enemy of the State, Three Days of the Condor, and maybe even the celluloid king of “If I’m not a Spy, why am I suddenly having a Spy adventure that started with people wanting to torture me over something I don’t have a clue about, got worse from there!”, North by Northwest. As far as Spy novels go, it’s easy to recommend Liar’s Candle to anyone wanting thrills plus intricate plot (but it all makes sense), and lots of wicked surprises (“Penny, we keep getting tricked. You’re clever, I’m, well, I’m borderline cleverish, so the issue here is not brains, but more along the lines of Stop Trusting These Bastards!”).
My fave Espionage novels by women authors are Agent In Place by Helen MacInnes, Flashback by Jenny Siler (apparently sometimes Siller), and what’s that other one, forget my own name next, oh yes, Liar’s Candle by August Thomas...so go to town, Spy fans. Better yet, go to Turkey!