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4.3 out of 5 stars52
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 18 March 2002
Robert Harland - an ex spy - is flung from a crashing plane, and so begins a tale of intrigue and espionage, culminating in the search for a war criminal. However, what distinguishes this book from more generic spy thrillers is that the characters never become caricatures and that the plot also takes in a personal quest to discover the past.
As Harland unravels war crimes, so he also begins to unravel the consequences of a past love and the two gradually come together as the book progresses.
The book most reminded me of Le Carre, in that the plot becomes complex and murky, while remaining thoroughly gripping. The plotting and characters are good, although the story - let's face it - is more than a little unlikely.
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on 24 November 2001
I felt Henry Porter showed great promise in his first book but tried too hard to fit into the formulae of a thriller per se. Here he comes of age. He writes with authority and verve and great compassion about pressing matters that affect us all, namely war crimes, justice and the nature of Humanity. In a thriller it is unusual to find such matters addressed with such important intellect but Mr Porter pulls it off! I read this book in three 'sittings' pausing only to walk and muse upon Man's Inhumanity to his Fellow Man. What greater tribute could a reader pay to an author.
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on 7 August 2011
At the heart of this book is a very well-constructed tale that should by rights hit all the grace notes required for intrigue, suspense, drama and everything else that makes a good read. It starts brilliantly; before you've really had chance to draw breath the protagonist Harland is laden on all sides with shady dealings and unanswered questions that should set up a breathless pursuit of the truth.

Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to its promise largely on account of the turgid writing. Porter doesn't seem capable of identifying the key moments of tension and intrigue in his own story - chapters meander up to and away from multiple revelations as if on a Sunday stroll around the supermarket and then end at seemingly arbitrary points of little or no consequence. When we should be rocked back on our heels at how events are unfolding, and how enmeshed in each others' lives his characters are, instead a moment of inattention will cause you to miss something that the characters themselves barely react to most of the time. And it's not just like this for one or two things, it's on pretty much every page; people die, motives are revealed, agencies plot and manipulate...and at no point do you really feel that anyone cares.

It's like the first draft of a far better novel, as if Porter sat down and took a deep breath and just typed and typed and typed until all his ideas were down and was then too exhausted to tidy it up once he'd finished. And that's a real shame, because if you can stick with it this has a very well-observed and developed story at its core that you're just never encouraged to take much interest in. As a second novel on this sort of subject - and one written a decade ago, no less, in which time a lot has changed - it probably just about passes muster, but I'd advise anyone new to Porter to start on his later work (which I've not read, but he's clearly got more talent than is in evidence here) and then come back to this.
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on 28 August 2001
I rarely read fiction because I prefer to spend my retirement learning but was given this book as a gift by my nephew. I must say I have hearty admiration for the manner in which Mr. Porter has used "the novel" as a way to communicate fascinating data on a variety of subjects. It would be curmudgeonly to reveal here the actual plot and indeed this was so complex I confess I was often forced to backtrack to pick up the clues and themes. But to a "non fiction" devotee such as myself this was of little import. Mr. Porter has woven into his fictional narrative excellent descriptions of the following matters, namely air safety and the causes of air crashes, comas and the treatment of them, the structure of the United Nations, the manner in which crimes against Humanity are investigated, the historical and legal background to the recent tragedies in the Balkans, secret weapons systems, the working methods of the FBI, the argot of the British Secret Intelligence Services, computer "hacking" and vivid accounts of what Prague, New York and London and trains in Middle Europe are like. I am not qualified to pronounce on the merits of this book as pure fiction but I must say I felt better informed from reading it. I will certainly keep an eye open for Mr. Porter's next book and am sure I will learn more from it about the world around us.
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on 30 November 2001
Henry Prorter is emerging as a writer who is unafraid to meet head on the big issues facing us. In his first book which I greatly enjoyed he described the roots of violence in Ireland with power and humour. In this his second book he writes about the Balkans and I for one understood for the first time why Moslems hate Serbs and vice verse. All this was done within the setting of a thriller so that one did not feel one was being force fed facts. Some novelists discuss the human condition,in all its rights and wrongs, and with elegance and erudition. Porter knows his limits and sets out only to light up events and he does so ably. I put this book down feeling as if I understood the Balkans for the first time.I hope Henry Porter lights up the Afghanistan tragedy in his next book.
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on 11 September 2001
I read this book on a short walking holiday of the D Day beaches in Normandy. I usually take only one paperback on such holidays for reasons of weight but made an exception because having greatly enjoyed Mr. Porter's debut novel I was anxious not to miss this one. I greatly enjoyed it. Mr. Porter traverses the Holocaust of the Balkans in a provocative and thought provoking manner. It is fiction but also made me wonder about the nature of Humanity. It made me think. Have we come any further since the savagery of D Day? Mr. Porter forces the reader to conclude have not.The hero Harland is a startling and brilliant metaphor for all of us. He is a man who does not seek redemption but has it forced upon him.
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on 7 July 2002
This is the best spy thriller I've read since "The Spy Who Camer In From The Cold." Beautifully plotted, not only is it exciting but draws the reader in emotionally too. The passage in which we discover what happened to Tomas in Bosnia brought tears to my eyes. I really look forward to the next Henry Porter novel (and he's a brilliant journalist, too.)
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on 17 December 2001
Even as I write this I suspect, nay hope, Mr Porter is writing a new novel to illuminate what is really happening in the Near East of Afghanistan. For his chosen material is not the goings on of urban socialites but the gritty dramas of contemporary international affairs from which he draws important morals, more so than the affairs of the heart of the usual novel. In his first opus it was Ireland in all its gore and here he tackles the Balkan Question, as one previous reviewer put it, and does so with great skill, aplomb and not a little humour, for he realises that humour is a rapier sharp tool, more so than earnestness. I can make no useful criticism of this excellent work. It is packed with action, romance and the whiff of intrigue of the Balkans. Mr Porter dismisses as outmoded the idea of fine writing and choses instead to push his energy into plot and character and tension. Unlike many modern novels this makes for a good read. Now I look forward to his next book and hope it will be about what we have seen on television and read about in the newspapers. I do not doubt Mr Porter will acquit himself adequately.
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on 28 February 2006
He's good but not yet great, but then, I've read only his first two books and have noted the improvement in A Spy's Life. Porter is a strong writer who creates believable characters and page-turning plots. There are caveats, which is why he gets 4 stars (3 1/2, really, but 3 seemed too low). First of all, the relationships between the characters and various agencies gets so convoluted it becomes difficult at times to remember who's working for whom and why. Second, there comes a time (or two or more) in each book when somebody does something really weird (such as, insisting on accompanying the protagonist somewhere for seemingly no good reason)and the otherwise very intelligent protagonist never seems to find this especially strange or, if he does, he quickly and not very believably shrugs off his misgivings. And, last, Porter still hasn't found a way to slip in his always-extensive "back story," so there's always a point where some character says to the protagonist something like, "Remember back in '89 in Prague, when you and I...blah...blah..blah" and then goes on for page after page of exposition in a really silly monologue that couldn't be more obvious if said character had prefaced his speech by saying, "Time out, old chap, while I explain a few bits for the readers." Happily, Porter is already so good in other ways that this isn't as annoying as it sounds, though it always somewhat breaks the spell. However, I look forward to Empire State and Brandenberg and do think he could be the new Le Carre, especially as Le Carre has become a bit of a bore these days. And, considering that some people actually consider Dan Brown a good writer, Porter deserves about 7 stars.
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on 10 August 2001
As a retired officer of one of the agencies which figures large in Henry Porter's book who served once in the Balkans when it was stable under Marshal Tito I can vouch for the authenticity of his book. He has managed to "get inside the minds" of both my successors in government agencies and, more pertinently, into the pysches of the Balkan people as a whole. Well done! I thoroughly enjoyed this book although I am not by nature a reader of such thrillers, preferring solid history of the ilk of Anthony Beevor.
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