Damn it’s been a long time since I’ve written a review, but at least I’m coming back with a great one. I love me a good spy novel, but it’s hard to find a new, independent voice in the genre. I never was a big James Bond fan, even if Fleming’s original books are worth it. I’d be thinking too much about the movies. Same for Jason Bourne. I read The Bourne Identity during my self-imposed review hiatus, and dear God, the movies are way off from the books. While we’re at it, what’s wrong with making a fantasy spy novel, with magic and otherworldly creatures and stuff? That’s why I have to tell everyone about Mr. Setchfield’s debut novel.
Christopher Winter has a decent nine to five job. He works for British Intelligence in 1963, the height of the Cold War against Russia. He just has to check into work each day, kill anyone that’s selling secrets to Moscow, and go home to his loving wife Joyce. That all goes to Hell, literally, when the traitor he’s sent to eliminate starts bleeding worms and centipedes, his handler Malcolm Hands dies on the job, and his wife turns out to be pumping him full of drugs to keep him stable. When the people he knows, loves and trusted all want him dead, the only lead he has is in Vienna, Austria, where that traitor was selling secrets to the Russians. Winter figures that since Malcolm said the intel wouldn’t just hurt England, but the world at large in new and horrific ways, he might as well get to the bottom of it. People have already tried to kill him over it, so it has to be worth something.
Things quickly get strange when he meets a Russian double agent named Karina who’s more interested in Renaissance era demon-summoning than modern tradecraft, a Russian psychic with a literal Evil Eye, and a demon, a genuine demon, named the Widow of Kursk. Admittedly some characters come and go in the span of a chapter, and it can be confusing if you’re not paying attention, but that’s what makes spy novels work. The nature of the game is to lie. Lie about your identity, your motives, and your loyalties. That’s what it takes to be a spy. The downside to many other spy novels is that the author can take it too far. I realize that I’m taking an unpopular stance by saying this, but Ludlum’s Bourne series can be super confusing because not only does Bourne himself go through three separate identities, but everyone around him, like his wife and friends, all have multi-level agendas as well. For the most part, Chris Winter seems to be a straight-forward kind of guy. Sure, he’s a professional assassin, but he’s never had any qualms or confusions about that. Here’s a gun. There’s the target. Hop to it. Now, with all this talk of opening a portal to Hell somewhere in Communist-divided Germany, things get a little dicey.
One of the best parts of this story is the description in the world building. I mentioned Germany, and I’d be willing to believe that Setchfield was in Berlin while the Wall was still standing. Quick history lesson for you young-ins out there, but from 1961 to 1989 the city of Berlin, Germany was practically cut in half between the Democratic West and Communist East. I’m missing out on a ton of history here (I remember watching news footage of people partying as they tore the Wall down in ’89), but Setchfield’s text made me feel that Wall’s presence down to the last brick. I also loved his material on the Austrian Alps, the cold Soviet border, and the German countryside as winter (the season) rolled in. If Setchfield didn’t live or travel through those areas personally than he’s a damn good researcher.
Well that’s all well and good, but I’ve bashed other authors for taking too long describing their worlds. What makes War in the Dark so great? The action, suspense and horror. Most amateur horror writers just say “Ooh, there’s something out there! Oogie-boogie-boo! Look a Cthulhu monster! Run!” Setchfield chases Winter with shape-shifting demons that can sap into his memories and assume the identities of his closest friends and family. So are they real or is he going crazy? Did that people he once loved really die? Before he even has a chance to answer that Winter realizes that his face is fading away from photographs and reflections, and the only photo that does come in clearly is him shaking hands and smiling with a Soviet agent. Spooked yet? How about the way that the Widow of Kurst recognizes him even though she’s been in a Limbo dimension for twenty years? Or how Winter’s never even seen a magical rune in his life, but when Karina shows him her books on demon summoning, he memorizes them in a snap? Horror can easily come from an outside source. It can easily be something that, in the long run, that invokes pain, misery or death. But when it comes from within, when it changes your perceptions of the world by changing, better choice of word, corroding or warping your own identity, that’s when it really has teeth. I hate most amateur horror writers because they think they can just throw in something nasty with tentacles or fangs and that will turn the hero into a quivering bowl of crazy, so I love it when professional writers have that sanity fall drip by precious drip.
I wish I could write more about this book here, but I’d be reaching into spoiler territory. I also know that this makes my reviews much shorter than bad books, but it makes my personal library that much larger. I highly recommend The War in the Dark for anyone that loves spy stories, horror stories, action stories, or hell, good stories in general. It earns a solid…
…from me. I hope to God and all the little demons in Setchfield’s head that he writes a sequel. I’ll be happy to see this version of Winter coming.
Listening to: Dance with the Dead
Reading: Ravenloft Gazeteer
Playing: Surviving Mars
Drinking: Raspberry Lemonade