Monday, February 21, 2011

Review of The Vienna Assignment by Olen Steinhauer (Harper, 2005)

Vienna, 1966, and Brano Oleksy Sev wakes with temporary amnesia. It’s the height of the Cold War, he’s the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and one of his countrymen is dead, seemingly at his own hands. By nightfall he is on a plane back to his home country where the only thing saving him from the firing squad is his mentor Colonel Cerny. After a couple of harrowing weeks of interrogation, Sev is discharged from the intelligence services to work in factory. Six months later and he is sent to his home village to keep an eye on a defector who has returned to collect his family. Sev is then framed for murder for a second time. This time he doesn’t wait for the inevitable inquiry, fleeing with the family, first entering Hungary, then slipping over the border into Austria. There he is picked up by the Austrian intelligence service and sent to spy on recent immigrants and to keep an eye on a US funded group who want to ferment a popular uprising in his home country. Sev knows intuitively he’s a pawn in a much bigger game being played out, but its rules seem to elide him. Instead he concentrates on the one thing he’s sure about – the need to stay alive.

One ingredient of a good spy thriller is a sense of mystery, with the reader and the main protagonist not really sure quite what is happening. Steinhauer manages to maintain this uncertainty to the end of The Vienna Assignment. Just as you think you’ve got a handle on what is happening and why, the mirrors are shifted and a new view appears. The prose is mostly quite functional, but the plotting is carefully constructed, the shifting ground and mind games well framed and paced, tempting the reader along. The characterization is for the most part good, with Sev in particular a well-penned character, with depth, layers and rich back story. The Cold War sense of place in Vienna is well portrayed and contextualised. My big gripe is that Sev’s home country, in which a large portion of the book takes place, is unnamed and is therefore a bit ephemeral. I’m not really sure why. It makes for an odd balance, where the history and places of Austria and Hungary are a central component, but they are opposed by a generic Iron Curtain country lacking in context. Overall, a solid spy thriller with an interesting protagonist and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until near the end.

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