My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If we didn’t already have a term, “kickass female protagonist,” someone would have to invent it to discuss this book. Almasi’s Alix Nico — a 19-year-old bionically enhanced superspy is everything you want in a heroine — smart, sassy, and reckless — she’s an adrenaline junkie, a crack short, and has the beginning of a drinking problem. Equal parts Juno MacGuff, Jaime Sommers (Wagner, not Ryan), and Syd Brystow.
The action kicks off during the first sentence and really doesn’t stop until the last couple of pages. There are a couple breaks for agency briefings and hospital recovery times following a mission, true — but otherwise, it’s flying around the world, running/driving down alleyways and shooting up bad guys.
ExOps is the well-oiled covert machine that Alix works for — as her mother does, and her father did. All her life, really, had revolved around this — her schooling, her family and now her career — her rivals, friends, and boyfriend/partner are all part of this. By and large, the ExOps characters are stock characters, but Almasi’s put enough individuality to them to make them well-rounded. Alix is a prodigy of sorts, shooting up through the ranks faster than most — and sometimes cutting a few corners to do that — which leads to a lot of scrutiny from her mentor, colleagues and superiors. She’s too valuable to be wasted, too green to be fully trusted, and too reckless to be left to her own devices.
As great as the bionically-enhanced fight scenes are, as much as I dig the characters — the thing that seals the deal on this book for me is the setting. He starts with a World War II where Germany has a lot more success, which leads to a different kind of Cold War — between the U. S., Greater Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Nationalist Republic of China(!). This “Shadowstorm” (catchier name than Cold War, don’t ya think?) propels intense scientific progress — particularly as it relates to weapons and spycraft development. So by the early 1980s (where we pick up the action), the weapons and related tech far surpass our own. Yet it feels pretty 80’s-ish. I’m not sure how Almasi does that (beyond references to Reagan — actually, I really liked the whole presidential history we’re given here), but I’ll take it.* Despite the world taking on a literally different shape, it still feels like reality. Most alt-histories I’ve run across feel like parodies of reality, this feels like the real thing.
This novel is told with wit, verve and panache — a fun read that I immediately passed on to my teenage sons. Hope that Almasi has a few of these in his tank.
*(okay, sure, some of the slang seems more Twenty-Teens than Alt-80’s, but, eh, in the moment you buy most of it — that’s enough)