In her bold, deliciously off-kilter debut, Lisa Brackmann sets up a dizzying itinerary, jostling readers back and forth in time and space from the war-torn Iraq of “a rough six years or so” ago to contemporary China. But just in case anybody gets too complacent, she tosses in a few Stateside flashbacks and excursions into the virtual world of online role-playing.
Still, readers have it relatively easy—it’s Ellie Cooper who has to live it. She’s a 26-year-old ex-pat American vet still recovering from wounds sustained while serving as an EMT in Iraq. Having been abandoned in China by her cheating husband Trey, Ellie is marginally employed, estranged from her born-again Stateside mother, and racked with guilt over her reluctant participation in possible war crimes. Ellie is adrift, barely hanging on—a loose cannon without a country. And then, while visiting her sometime-boyfriend Lao Zhang, a young artist with a growing international rep and “suspect” politics, she meets one of his friends, an Uighur—a member of the barely tolerated Chinese Muslim minority—and Ellie finds herself a pawn in a game of political and corporate cat-and-mouse. Suspected of being a terrorist—or at least a potentially valuable double agent—and pursued by both the American and Chinese governments and other, more shadowy entities (including the private “American interests” that now employ Trey), Ellie has no idea what’s going on.
When Lao Zhang disappears, Ellie takes it on the lam herself, in a frantic trek by bus and train through a polluted, paranoid China that Western readers rarely see: a restless place of grungy Internet cafes, jet-setting art collectors, greasy noodle joints, Starbucks-strewn suburbs, under-the-radar activists, faceless cities of millions of people, disco parties on the Great Wall, desolate outposts, and most incongruously of all, a vibrant world of online gaming fanatics who may—or may not—be trying to use the game to contact Ellie and thus avoid what Ellie derisively calls “the Great Firewall of China.” In this truly post-modern mash-up of Hitchcock, National Geographic, Reds, G.I. Jane, John le Carré, and Tron, Brackman covers more ground in one thriller than some writers do in a career. Recommended.
—Kevin Burton Smith