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Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the Shadowstorm series by debut author G. T. Almasi, an action-adventure spy thriller novel.
“Take any high-stakes action movie, add in advance cybernetics and spies. Blades of Winter is the awesome result.“ ~The Founding Fields
Its been ages since I’ve read a spy novel, the last I remember reading is Ian Fleming’s Moonraker some twelve years or so ago, a James Bond 007 novel that was also made into a movie starring Roger Moore in the titular role. Since then I haven’t read any more spy novels, although I’ve watched a fair few films. So when I came across Blades of Winter on NetGalley a while back, I was really excited the premise and the setting and the characters. Set in an alternate reality where Germany successfully invades Britain during the Second World War and the world is later divided between Germany, China, Russia and the USA, Almasi has written a novel that has high-octane cinematic action written all over it. The novel could easily have been a disappointment to me, truth be told, but I’m glad that it was anything but.
In Almasi’s alternate reality, the Cold War is all about cybernetically-enhanced super spies fighting a secret (or not so secret depending on how you look at it) global war behind the scenes. I was initially put off by the time-setting of the novel, as I expected to be treated to constant references of how things were in that dreadful era, but Almasi never does that. The details of the overall setting, and how the characters fit into this alternate world are handled delicately enough for my liking and the author eases the reader into it. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that if it were not for the whole Shadowstorm setting, this could have been a pretty typical James Bond novel, those that I consider to be among Fleming’s best that is, such as From Russia With Love, Dr. No, and Casino Royale.
The protagonist of the novel however is no seasoned charming, handsome male agent who can charm the ladies, frustrate the villains and drinks vodka-martinis. Alix Nico is a nineteen-year old girl who was trained since her pre-teen years by the ExOps agency, preceded by her father who was America’s top agent and a man in a class of his own, or Level as ExOps agents are known, when he was alive. Alix curses frequently, is a hot-head who’d give even Bond a run for his money and is entirely proficient in the not-so subtle art of turning living breathing villains into corpses, except in situations where her special customised gun leaves enough of a corpse after its done with them. I was initially put off by her age and her attitude, which I found to be incongruous within the setting. I’ve always seen spy-work as a matter for professionals like Bond, or Salt, or any other popular spies in fiction, not for young adults who are barely even in college! I was reminded of Mark Lawrence’sBroken Empire series protagonist Jorg who is a downright bastard and an utterly immoral teenager (thirteen I think?), a character whose actions and words never struck me as real. But the same is not the case here with Alix. She has an entire support system of her mother, her best friend who is also an ExOps agent, and her mentors within the agency. Seen through their eyes and in shared context with them, her character is brought to life by Almasi and you really connect with her as a character.
The novel is told in the first person, all from Alix’s point of view, and that adds to the level of immersion of the novel. I’ve been reading a lot of novels lately where first person is used and while I was at first hesitant with this, I’ve come to like it. It has its disadvantages of course, in that it enforces a deeper connection to the characters than the reader might be comfortable with (such as with the aforementioned Jorg), and that it doesn’t allow you to truly see the wider picture (Matt Forbeck gets around this in his Brave New World novels by using chapters from multiple character view points) but the fact is that I like that deeper connection.Blades of Winter is one of those few novels where the first person perspective works perfectly since it fits the character and fits the setting and fits the author’s style.
Alix Nico is a very stream of conscious protagonist and I like that. It marks her out as different from other characters who tell their stories in the same style. The style is a rarity as far as I can tell. But still, it is also fun because it really allows the reader to get into Alix’s head. Her commentaries are always funny and charming.
As a character, there bits and pieces of tropes to her, such as the “special one who has undergone tragedy and must rise above adversity”, her “feminine badassery in pure Hollywood style” (think of Alice from the Resident Evil films) but you know what, I didn’t mind any of it at all. Almasi’s writing is fun, witty, and engaging. It never makes me think of the tropes or cliches that he is using because the mood that he builds up keeps you focused on the characters as people and the setting itself as a character taking part in the events of the novel. There is nothing weak about her, unless you consider getting drunk on schnapps while on intercontinental flights to be a weakness. Not the strongest female protagonists I’ve read of either but she is still out there in the big leagues alongside Jane Carver and Ulrika the Vampire.
The author also uses his setting to full effect. We are treated to a variety of locales in true James Bond fashion and the characters that Alix meets are all just as fun and interesting to read about than any of Fleming’s characters. And also the fact that the author doesn’t limit himself to the “white-male” stereotype of heroes and villains, but goes further, as he has several prominent characters of Middle-Eastern origin in the novel as well. That deserves recognition I must say. They all fit in naturally, each with their own sphere of influence over the events and other characters.
The pacing of the novel is pretty much what you’d expect from an action spy thriller, whether it is James Bond or something like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s True Lies. Lots of explosions, lots of car chases through city streets, lots of bullets flying around and so on. And a bit of a romance as well, which spiced things up nicely. I would have liked things to slow down a bit, and let the reader immerse into more of the characters’ personalities and motivations, to just sit back and relax as it were, but its all good. In the end, that approach would not have worked for this novel I think, and I’m sure that Alix would agree with me on that regard. She’s an impatient one, always wanting to get the job done as quickly as possible, with as much noise as her custom gun, Lil’ Bertha (her dad’s own special issue weapon), can make.
Blades of Winter is not an overtly subtle novel, but it does have its moments. The flashbacks give an indication of where things are headed but even then, events don’t turn out as you’d expect them to, so the mystery and suspense is still there. And the ending is definitely something out of the left field, at least for me as I had no expectation of things ending as they did. My jaw dropped, honestly!
In closing, I’d say that this is a fantastic debut and that I do recommend the novel. The best single word that describes this novel is “Fun”, because that’s what it is, start to finish. This is definitely one of the best novels I’ve read this month.