Skinner founded his career in “asset protection” on fear. To touch anyone under his protection was to invite destruction. A savagely effective methodology, until Skinner’s CIA handlers began to fear him as much as his enemies did and banished him to the hinterlands of the intelligence community.
Now, an ornate and evolving cyber-terrorist attack is about to end that long exile. His asset is Jae, a roboticist with a gift for seeing the underlying systems violently shaping a new era of global guerrilla warfare.
At the root of it all is a young boy, the innocent seed of a plot grown in the slums of Mumbai. Brought to flower, that plot will tip the balance of world power in a perilous new direction.
Skinner reads like Tom Clancy with a change in political opinion and access to an IV chockful of smart drugs, it has the benefit of perspective and is resolutely of the moment in the idea that the world is now, on balance, more fractious in respect of the threats that exist can range from Chinese military through to Anonymous-esque cells releasing code like magic spells. It’s not a comforting read, and it makes it clear that the reaction to such threats is probably as morally ambiguous in it’s intentions as the original actions. It points out that we’re so overloaded with reports of disaster, outrage and outrageous disaster that it takes the worst possible event to make us do more than shrug our shoulders and go ‘meh’.
Huston, however, doesn’t forget that the tropes of the genre are part of the appeal. The personal made political, the idea that spies rather than suave, cocktail sipping men about town are actually seedy, little men that you wouldn’t look at twice. Bitter, spiteful malcontents with mental health issues and Skinner, although rendered noble by the circumstances that made him an incredible intelligence asset, is still a vicious killer. Huston makes Skinner an appealing protagonist because of his reputation. This is a book of damaged, troubled people trying to do good and it’s punctuated with Huston’s incredibly well crafted violence and eye for details. It’s a brutal, thoughtful book and it ends on something of an upward drift, which took me by surprise and I enjoyed it immensely.
Jae, the female co-protagonist is flawed and complex without being a poorly assembled collection of traits. It’s a beautiful thing that she’s more capable than Skinner in a lot of ways and that she has agency. She’s not a mary-sue protagonist and her viewpoint chapters represent some of the finest writing in the book, where she makes associations and we learn about her altruistic ideals, and how she struggles with how they are used.
Damaged, well intended people fighting for a finer world and trying not to lose their minds in the process. Plus Skinner kills people with a pair of socks and a ruler, which was fantastically done.