Saturday, October 27, 2018

Book Reviews Reloaded: Red Cell

Red Cell - Mark Henshaw
Touchstone Publishing
338 Pages

This article first appeared on East Niagara Post on March 3, 2015. It is repeated here as I work to put all my book reviews in one place. They will be posted on Thursdays or Fridays and only be altered from the original in that I will add publisher information and pages. Hopefully, by revisiting these reviews, other people might find a book they'd like to pick up for their own enjoyment.

I used to be an avid reader of Tom Clancy’s novels, especially The Hunt for Red October. Ever the faithful reader, I stuck with him through the long wait between The Teeth of the Tiger (2003) and Dead or Alive (2010). The political thriller/espionage genre is full of fine writers, but I have been searching for that one author who really grabs the reader’s attention and throws it around the room just to keep them on their toes. With Red Cell, Mark Henshaw has picked up the mantle vacated by Clancy’s untimely death.

There are a couple bumps and stumbles in this debut work, but overall this is a great piece of fiction. As a former CIA analyst, Henshaw has a unique insight to the shadowy intelligence world, and it shows through his well-developed plot.

In the weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks, a new think tank, Red Cell, is developed to try to think outside the box in stopping or preventing further attacks against the United States. It is this group that the intelligence world and the President turns to when an asset in China leaks information that China is preparing invade Hong Kong. They have also developed stealth technology that they are more than willing to test against an American carrier.

The US asset in China has to escape his homeland. As part of this backdrop, the invasion of Hong Kong takes center stage. Historically speaking, China has always considered Hong Kong to be a part of China, regardless of their own view of independence. The United States has mostly had a hands-off approach to the tensions between Hong Kong and China.  To test the extent of the American non-approach, China tests the boundaries against the might of the US Navy.

Into this mix, Red Cell sends a new operative.  Kyra Stryker is a rookie case officer who is paired with a renegade analyst, Jonathan Burke.  Their first mission is to rescue “Pioneer” from China. “Pioneer” is the codename for the asset deep in China. An official in the Chinese government, “Pioneer” has been able to filter inside information to the United States for many years. His handlers at Langley are reticent to give up this stream, but events in China force their hand. In order to save his life after all he’s done for them, Red Cell must save his life before China ends it.

Through “Pioneer” the United States learns that China has developed stealth technology. This stealth technology is vastly superior to earlier incarnations from China and is on par with the pinnacle of US stealth. Naval pilots have to be on the top of their game to catch a glimpse of this elusive target before it can deliver a deadly payload to the American fleet.

This book is a face-paced thriller that keeps you turning the pages. It is very reminiscent of Tom Clancy’s early thrillers albeit without the long technical detail for which Clancy was so famous. It is because of this that this book is able to deliver an action packed narrative that even the most technologically illiterate reader (me!) can enjoy. The twists and turns slowly build until they are coming fast and furious as the situation evolves in Hong Kong and China.

The historical implications explored in this novel was well thought out and based in reality. Many of the events described therein could really happen. China is an emerging superpower with millions of scientists working for the “good of the state.”  The means to create the technology utilized in this novel are likely being developed in that country. Their massive military complex is more than able to stage an invasion of the port city and surrounding islands.

The biggest detraction to this novel is character development. Both Stryker and Burke remain shadowy characters throughout the narrative. They end up being stickfigure characters who are placeholders in the story. Each character merely goes through the motions of being human. The real high point of this novel is the political action that pits the nations of China and United States against each other.

The author, Mark Henshaw, is able to use his experience and expertise from the CIA  to pull together an all too probable course of action in Asia. His analytical assessment of the turbulence in this part of the world lends a profound credibility to Red Cell. Aside from his character development, Henshaw’s work is an extraordinary look at what “could be.” It’s exactly the type of military/espionage thriller that follow in the footsteps of James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor or Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.

On the plus side, Henshaw has written a sequel, Cold Shot, which furthers the adventures of Kyra Stryker and Jonathan Burke. If it delivers that same analytical superiority of his first novel, it should be a spectacular read.  If in the intervening years he has developed his characters more fully, it should be a book that is impossible to put down.

Craig Bacon sometimes dreams about being a spy. Mostly he dreams about being a superhero, which has nothing to do with this novel.