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4.3 out of 5 stars
10
4.3 out of 5 stars
Havana
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VINE VOICEon 1 January 2004
While head and shoulders above the rest of Hunter's supposed rivals in the thiller genre, this is probably Hunter's weakest novel since 'Time to Hunt'. Like that work, this feels like a series playing itself out and a writer occasionally just going through the motions. It does not suprise me that Hunter himself was blocked after his last masterpiece 'Pale Horse Coming', and the idea for this novel came not from him but from his agent. His heart just doesn't seem quite in it.
That all said, even sub par Hunter slaughters any other writers in the thriller world. As stark and explosive as his previous books, this also features more of the sardonic humour familiar to readers of Hunter's Pulitzer Prize winning movie criticism. Earl Swagger himself appears at times as a peripheral character, and occasionally suffers - appearing less stoical and taciturn as stolid and grumpy. But Hunter compensates with some other great characters: a wonderfully Machiavellian Meyer Lansky, a hilariously incompetent young Fidel Castro, plus fictional figures like bungling Mafia hitman Franke Carbine and sadistic Cuban torturer and gun-toting maniac Ojos Bellos. Best of all is the return of Frenchy Short, Earl's former protege gone bad, now a seductively amoral rising star at the CIA, and the new character of Speshnev, the Russian operative sent to protect Castro. Speshnev is in many ways a Russian Earl Swagger - a hardened veteran of a litany of wars, and man out of time, spurned by his booses at KGB, sprung from imprisonment for this thankless task. But in contrast to Earl, Speshnev appears charmingly cynical and hilariously laid-back. Diffident and slyly humourous, the Russian appears in stark relief to the occasionally stolid Earl. Indeed Speshnev is such a wonderful creation, perhaps Hunter should consider a novel focussed solely on this deceptively deadly agent, or maybe mixing him up with the compellingly complex Frenchy Short and his relentless rise through the CIA.
The Earl Swagger series seems now completely played out (barring prequels of his wartime exploits), and perhaps it would have been best to have left him at the searing conclsuion of 'Pale Horse Coming' (as Bob Lee should have been left with 'Black Light'). Hunter himself says he is writing a mysterious non-fiction work, anyway it is time this writer of unique talent stretched his wings.
A flawed work, but a nonetheless blissfully enjoyable one for all it's limitations. Stephen Hunter is, and will remain, among the best writers at work today, and the unrivalled master of the thriller world.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 January 2004
Havana, 1953, all tawdry glamour and heady excitement, lures opportunists of all types with its irresistible promises of financial and political gain. Author Hunter wastes not a moment in drawing the reader into the complexity of Cuban life as he reveals the chances ambitious men, many of them Americans, are willing to take in the economic and political free-for-all which has accompanied Fulgencio Batista's seizure of the presidency in a recent coup. American interests, including the interests of American mob boss Meyer Lansky, Batista's friend of more than thirty years, are being served by Batista's dictatorship.
Hunter recreates the tension-filled jockeying for power and the no-holds-barred violence which accompany it by presenting a large cast of characters representing the various elements contending with each other for dominance in Havana. Earl Swagger, a former State Policeman from Arkansas and a Medal of Honor winner, has been hired to be bodyguard for the venal Congressman Harry Etheridge, who believes that American gangsters in Cuba are trying to muscle in on contracts for all the services at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. Mob boss Meyer Lansky is colluding with American corporations which need cheap sugar, labor, and fruit. The Soviets have assigned a parolee from Siberia to "handle" Fidel Castro, whom they are trying to educate and groom for higher office. American Central Intelligence has set up shop in Havana, though various station officers have formed "off-campus" alliances which will leave them independently wealthy. The U.S. Navy, the Cuban secret police, especially a torturer who specializes in slitting eyeballs, and even Ernest Hemingway are involved in the action.
Concentrating almost exclusively on his plots, rather than his characters, most of whom are stereotypes, Hunter does a terrific job of juggling, keeping all the balls in the air. The pace never flags, and because the action takes place on a small island, where the characters could not help but interact and find their paths crossing, the improbabilities and coincidences, which would be distracting in a wider context, appear normal here. The six or seven subplots develop a fairly full picture of life on the island which feels realistic. Gruesome torture scenes, and a main character's desire for a final sort of vengeance seem geared more to film than fiction, though these are minor quibbles for a book which moves swiftly and smoothly from one crisis to the next as the reader, totally involved in the intricacies of Cuban political and social history, remains fully engaged in an exciting novel which is great fun to read. Mary Whipple
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VINE VOICEon 9 January 2004
While head and shoulders above his supposed rivals in the thriller genre, this is probably Hunter's weakest novel since TIME TO HUNT. Like that book, this sometimes feels like a series playing itself out, and a writer going through the motions. It isn't perhaps surprising that the idea behind the novel came not from a blocked Hunter, but his agent. That all said, even a sub par Hunter kicks anyone else's ass. As action-packed and morally stark as his previous works, this also features more of the sardonic humour familiar to readers of Hunter's Pulitzer Prize winning movie criticism.
Earl Swagger occasionally appears almost as a peripheral character, and sometimes suffers because of this appearing less stoical and taciturn than stolid and grumpy. To compensate Hunter delivers a rich cast of other characters: a Machiavellian Meyer Lansky, a hilariously incompetent Fidel Castro, bungling Mob hitman Frankie Carbine, and sadistic Cuban torturer and gun-toting maniac Ojos Bellos. Best of all is the return of Swagger protégé gone bad Frenchy Short, now an aggressively upwardly-mobile operative for the CIA, and a new character Russian agent, Speshnev. Speshnev is a beguiling mixture of diffident charm, and deadly skills, and is in many ways Earl's soviet counter-part. A veteran of a litany of wars, and scorned by his masters at KGB, the iconoclastic cuts a swathe through the story, and ultimately steals the show. The Russian is such a wonderful creation, Hunter should consider a novel (or series) featuring him, and likewise Frenchy Short.
The Earl Swagger series now appears played out (barring prequels), and Hunter says he is at work on a non-fiction historical book. It would be refreshing now to see the uniquely talented Hunter explore different dramatic areas, with a fresh series, or maybe some stand-alone novels. While HAVANA is a flawed work, it remains a deliciously enjoyable one. Hunter is, and will remain, among the best writers at work today, and the unrivalled master of the thriller world.
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on 8 January 2004
There is simply no-one elses books I look forward to with more pleasure than Stephen Hunter. His latest visit to 'Swagger world' certainly did little to change my opinion. Sadly, though, I think that Earls adventures may be over after his exploits in Havanna but there are so many other characters that can continue torrid tales with I'm not too depressed.
If you haven't read any of the Swagger novels by Stephen Hunter then don't start here. You can start with 'Hot Springs' and read them in order. I only wish I hadn't read them so I could start from the beginning!
Finally, it's great to see the massively under-rated Colt .38 super get the good press it deserves!
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on 7 January 2008
Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger is recruited to be the bodyguard of self-important Congressman, "Boss" Harry Etheridge, who is going to Cuba supposedly to check out vice and criminal activity at Guantanamo. But the real purpose of the trip is to con Earl into killing Fidel Castro, who has been making speeches calling for the overthrow of the Batista regime.

Meanwhile, the Russians have released prisoner Zek 4715, a veteran of military campaigns in Spain and Germany, known as Speshnev to protect the young firebrand.

Speshnev is a Soviet version of Swagger, even to the point of living by a code of honor. In fact, in my opinion, Speshnev kind of steals the show. He has the perfect opportunity to kill Swagger in a Cuban jail, but he protects him instead, can't kill an unarmed man, don't cha know.

Fans of the Swaggers, Earl and Bobby Lee, have come to expect a lot of violence in the service of justice and they won't be disappointed here, though HAVANA isn't quite as bloody as past Swagger stories. Also Hunter seems to flesh out his characters a little more in this novel, making them more human. I thought about this book for quite a bit after I finished and I have to say this is my favorite book in the series and I am eagerly waiting for the next one.

Review submitted by Captain Katie Osborne
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on 4 June 2009
Hunter paints an interesting picture of Cuba before Casto seized power.
You will find a stoic and righteous Earl Swagger amidst spying cold war Russian- and CIA- agents with different agenda's as well as Mafia interests in this country in the early 50s of the last century.
A young Fidel Castro is being brought forward as well.
Off course this is a work of fiction, nevertheless Hunter creates a totally believable atmosphere with enough twists and turns to keep you up at night just to get to the next page.

If you are into the Swagger saga this is a recommended read. I at least enjoyed it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 November 2011
The idea behind Havana is interesting. It concerns a young, rather hot headed, Castro in pre revolution days. On one side we have the Soviet minder, Speshnev, who has been plucked from a gulag for the mission. He has been put there to guide and safeguard Castro as he has already been identified as a possibly significant figure. On the other side we have our hero, the rather improbably named Earl Swagger, who has been chosen by the Americans to eliminate Castro. Speshnev and Swagger quickly recognise each other as seasoned professionals and despite being on opposite sides of the political fence, establish a rapport, initially from a distance and then more personally.

However, although that is the bones of the story there are many other aspects to it including the involvement of the local gangsters and the rather shady intelligence sections in both the American and Russian missions. With a story of this nature we already know the outcome ie that Castro survived and went on to prosper and this does take a little of the excitement away. However, the Castro adventure almost plays itself out after a while by which time other parts of the story have taken over.

So the best part of this book is the cleverly thought out plot. However, it is in my opinion, an unnecessarily long book. Sometimes the language seems strangely stilted and the tense switches between present and past tense which I found jarred a bit. At times there is a lot of excitement and this is almost a page turner. However, in between we get rather bogged down when for a while nothing much of interest happens.

To summarise, this is a reasonable and quite a long read which could have benefited from some fairly serious editing.
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on 12 September 2016
As per any of the Swagger clan stories, this one flirts a little bit with reality and history but still manages to deliver a punchy little tale. If you've been to Cuba, you'll relate to the cityscape quite easily, albeit 60 years on. It hasn't changed much apart from some architectural decay and a poverty demographic that's scary even today. The actual story is just about ok but somewhat contrived. I bought this book on the Stephen Hunter 'ticket to thrill' ethos and the underlying black humour. It didn't disappoint but it's not his best. Read it anyway purely for the Swagger quirkiness.
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on 24 June 2013
I've read a lot of Stephen Hunter's books.
I can never fault his level of detail or his product knowledge.
I have to say though, for some reason I didn't enjoy this one as much as some of the
others that I've read.
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on 23 September 2014
Marvellously moody, lots of bizarre characters not least a young Fidel and our hero keeps walking his own straight line, I enjoyed it a lot.
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