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The Defector (Hardcover)

Daniel Silva Continues his Brilliant Character Study in THE DEFECTOR, July 20, 2009

In the follow-up to his 2008 New York Time's Best Seller, MOSCOW RULES, author Daniel Silva picks up exactly where the action last left off, and THE DEFECTOR is a brilliantly crafted novel that is unparalleled in its genre. What makes THE DEFECTOR so unique is found within its main character, Gabriel Allon, one of the world's premiere art restorers who just happens to be an Israeli intelligence officer and assassin. Allon is one of the most incredibly complex and dynamic characters to be found in modern literature, and Silva's newest novel further builds and expands upon the Allon mythology, creating a fascinating character who must deal with the dichotomous nature of the two worlds in which he exists. In fact, it is here where Silva's greatest strength as an author is found, for he is able to blend seamlessly elements of both intense page turning action with subtle examinations of character. The result is a book that is simply brilliant.

Having a main character who is an assassin, and one who can kill easily and without remorse, seems an unlikely choice for an audience to become invested in, but with Gabriel Allon, Silva is able to craft a character who is so well realized that the reader becomes hungry to learn more about him. This is the ninth novel to feature the Gabriel Allon character, and in this outing, Silva examines the relationships between Allon and those he is closest too, including those relationships both professional as well as private. Allowing the reader to see this side of the character, including moments of absolute tenderness showing how much Allon cares for his wife Chiara and how deeply he loves her, is what transforms him from that of the seemingly invincible spy character that is so prevalent in the genre into something that is more human, and in turn, much more accessible to the reader. When asked if he had in fact created a love story, Silva states, "It's true. A heart-stopping, edge-of-your-seat, and sometimes extremely violent love story, but a love story nonetheless. I feel as if I've developed a real bond with my readers, and I've learned something extremely valuable from them. While they're captivated by Gabriel's adventures, they also follow his personal trials and misfortunes very carefully-especially my female readers." This broad appeal to all readers, and the willingness to show a side of a main character that most other authors would shy away from is what makes THE DEFECTOR so intriguing. Knowing what is at stake for Allon, and knowing that he is simply not just an emotionless killer bound by duty to his country, is what helps build the tension of the novel. The love story actually then punctuates the action that unfolds while underscoring it with anxiety for the reader. You want Allon to succeed because you know what he will lose if he does not.

It is important to note though that having a love story in an intensely action orientated spy novel does not mean that the female characters in the book, such as Chiara, are shallow and without depth, only there to serve the purpose of allowing Allon to achieve a greater depth. This is so far from the case. What is most impressive about THE DEFECTOR is the fact that Silva has incorporated so many incredibly strong women into it. These are women who have the same amount of development as Allon, and are never used by Silva as mere periphery devices, but instead are presented with an equal amount of strength. As Silva explains, "Each of the remarkable women portrayed in the novel have a huge impact on the way the story is finally resolved. In real life I'm surrounded by strong women---anyone who's met my wife knows that---so it's only natural for me to cast women in heroic roles." This is such a crucial element to the success of THE DEFECTOR, for there exists no misogynistic undertones here, but rather a story populated with characters, both male and female, who are each allowed to develop on their own, while at the same time becoming compellingly interwoven with the others in the novel. The result is an incredibly dense and multilayered novel that hooks the reader and draws them into the intrigue of its world.

This world that Silva has so masterfully crafted is what gives the novel its relevance. The amount of research Silva does in preparation for his books is staggering, and the result is so vividly descriptive, both in regard to its physical as well as political landscapes, that it feels like even though it is a work of fiction, it is being ripped from the headlines, and characters such as these, in situations similar to these, are operating exactly in this manner somewhere in the world. This realism, set against the rapidly politically changing environment in modern day Russia, is what is most intriguing about this novel, and will have the effect of inspiring its readers to look more closely at the actual news headlines and to become more informed on Russia's relationships with the West.

With these elements, THE DEFECTOR is one of the best reads of the year, and even if you are not a fan of the spy genre, it is one you absolutely must pick up.

Defectors may flee, but they can never really escape..., July 22, 2009
By S. McGee (New York, NY)

When readers last encountered Gabriel Allon, Israeli spy and master art restorer, he was escorting the wife of an oligarch, Ivan Kharkhov, out of Russia, along with a journalist and FSB (KGB successor) agent. All four were fleeing Russia to save their lives, but as the events of this sequel show, it's hard to escape the long reach of the modern-day Kremlin or the fury of an outraged oligarch.

When this novel opens, Israeli master spy and assassin is back in Italy, restoring a Guido Reni altarpiece and debating the issue of having children with his wife, Chiara. Then Grigori Bulganov, the former FSB agent, vanishes off a street in London. Has he re-defected, returning home to Russia with insight into the way the British and Americans operate and dangerous knowledge about Allon? Or has he been snatched, in revenge for his betrayal? Allon needs to find out, even if it means flying in the face of direct orders from Shamron, his longtime boss, mentor and the head of "The Office". Not only is Allon's security at stake, but he made a promise to Grigori as they were driving to safety. "Promise me one thing, Gabriel," Grigori had said to him. "Promise me I won't end up in an unmarked grave" -- the traditional Russian punishment for betrayal. Nor is keeping that promise Allon's only motivation.

That promise and Allon's investigation are just the beginning of a dramatic series of events, as Gabriel must race to save the lives of those he cares for and deliver some measure of final justice to Kharkhov. It's not, properly speaking, a spy novel, but more of a suspense thriller in which the main protagonists happen to be spies or other forms of agents. The missions that Gabriel and his team tackle are deeply personal ones, culminating in a deeply personal act of vengeance at the book's close.

As with all Silva's books, the writing is careful and often eloquent. Still, anyone who has followed Gabriel and his team and occasional allies through all nine books in this series won't find many surprises outside the twists and turns of this particular plot. Gabriel is still torn between his desire for a peaceful life and his art and a deeper compulsion to do what only he (apparently) can do for his country; Shamron is still an elderly, tyrannical and rather ruthless 'retired' spy, etc. That's perhaps the single greatest flaw in this series -- while the characters' lives change (such as Gabriel meeting, falling in love with and marrying Chiara), the characters never really develop or change in significant ways. Thinking about this book after finishing it -- it's too good to stop and think while reading -- I realized that many of the passages about the thoughts of the main characters, removed from their context, could fit neatly back in to nearly any book in the series. It may sound like a quibble, but to me that means that while Silva is still able to craft a great thriller around one of the classic themes -- revenge -- his characters are getting a bit long in the tooth. Given the strength of some of his early, pre-Allon books (The Marching Season and The Unlikely Spy), I'd love to see this very good author turn his talents to some fresher material, before the plots also begin to feel repetitive. It's a tribute to Silva that this book -- which when I stepped back to think of it, was really just round two of Moscow Rules (Gabriel Allon) -- was such a pleasure to read.

Highly recommended to the author's fans; thriller readers will also enjoy it, although I'd suggest reading Moscow Rules before this one. (It's possible to read on a stand-alone basis, but you won't get the full background and context.) Die-hard spy novel afficionados may find that they prefer some of Silva's earlier books, which involve intelligence work as well as the tradecraft showcased in this one, or else read the works of Alan Furst or Olen Steinhauer. It seems to be open season on the part of suspense/spy novel writers on Putin's Russia; another new thriller I've just read and reviewed takes aim at some of the same themes (corruption and the oligarchs), albeit in a more oblique and less suspenseful manner -- Alex Dryden's Red to Black.