Since 2002, writer Brad Thor has been cranking away on an espionage series about fictional former Navy Seal and secret agent Scott Harvath. Over the course of eighteen books, the character has done everything from protecting the president, to facing off against Al Quida, to halting a war with China, and even stopping a global pandemic. As heightened as the series is, each story draws on the experience of real-life experts in the field of espionage who bring experience to explore exaggerated versions of threats that face the world we live in today. With his newest book Backlash, Thor gives us one of the most riveting and painful tales that Scott Harvath has ever had to grapple with.
Violence: Characters fight and kill one another, stabbing, shooting, explosions, a character is killed via injection, etc.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink.
Spiritual Content: None.
Language/Crude Humor: Coarse/Severe language throughout.
Other Negative Content: Themes of vengeance, characters are murdered.
Positive themes: Themes of survival, preserving life, loyalty and retribution.
The yearly release of one of Brad Thor’s Scott Harvath novels has become a yearly summer tradition for me. Political thrillers were among my first loves in literature. I have fond memories from my senior year of high school when I poured over Tom Clancy’s classic The Hunt for Red October. Pulpy political thrillers are my junk food reading material. They represent some of the best experiences I’ve had reading in the past few years as audiobooks have made long car rides bearable. Mind you, they aren’t high art. They sit in the same categorical place teen romance books, YA fiction, romantic comedies, and Chuck Norris movies do in my head. They’re something made to fill a very specific person’s id and when you find that person, they won’t be able to get enough of it.
I initially took a recommendation to look into Brad Thor’s books via Jim Geraghty’s daily blog The Morning Jolt, where he recommended starting with his 2012 book The Blacklist, an espionage novel that dramatized a scenario in which a rogue government agency conspired to use the internet as a means of mass surveillance in a strangely prophetic vision of the real-life illicit actions of the NSA (leaked publicly just two years later). After that, I was hooked on the overarching story. I’ve read every chronological book in the series since and have gone back to read a few of the older ones like Path of the Assassin (however, those don’t quite hold up as well). His newer novels like Hidden Order, Act of War, and Code of Conduct all have a much more defined voice and stronger themes than his older stories.
The thing that attracts me to Brad Thor novels is his combination of quick prose and intelligent long-form rants about national security. It’s a strange combination, but they’re exceptionally comfortable reads that rarely overstay their welcome. They’re books you walk away from having learned something useful or horrifying about the fragility of the modern world. Thor’s scenarios are always hyperbolic but they’re just close enough to reality that the idea of some rogue government agency or terrorist group going out and pulling some of the massive plans in these books is enough to make you twitch a little.
Still, there’s always been something I’ve wanted out of his books that have all too rarely been delivered in the overarching story of his series. While I enjoy the lead character and his side cast of fellow spies, I’ve always wanted the books to take more risks and create higher personal stakes for the main character Scott Harvath. The books created a massive cast of side characters, one-off villains and factions, yet the books have been very shy about ever putting them in danger to give the story personal stakes. This was at it’s worst in the book Code of Conduct which felt like it was setting up a scenario where the hero had to race against time to stop a global pandemic, yet his family never got directly put in the line of danger. What could’ve been an avenue for personal stakes and intense drama was instead blown past.
All too frequently these novels fail to use the tools they set up and end with a reset to zero by the end of the plot. As a result of this, the history of these characters rarely gets reincorporated into the plot down the line. It doesn’t matter in the modern books that Harvath fought off a massive Al Queda attack in New York City a decade prior. It’s just something that happened to him once. To a degree, you could say that’s part of the point. The books pretty purposely avoid the issue of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder which it’s lead character seems to have demonstrably never come down with despite having experienced such psychological damage. These are, after all, James Bond fantasy spy novels, not John Le-Carre morally serious spy novels. If these books had to carry constant consequence, it would have to be a more serious series and would run the risk of making the plot endlessly convoluted. Still, that lack of consequence and continuity drains a lot of possible drama and depth out of books that are otherwise quite engaging and doing their best to try and engage the reader intellectually.
Additionally, another problem I’ve had with Brad Thor’s book up until now is that there’s always been a rigid divide between the drama of the novels and the themes of the novels. The info dumps about how corrupt the Federal Reserve is or how an asymmetrical the war of attrition with China would be if launched are all fascinating and horrifying, but those exposition dumps exist outside of the ebb and flow of the rest of the novels. It’s not delicately weaved in, it’s dumped all at once for context whenever the characters find a chance to learn it. It also makes stretches of the book where characters are running around desperately trying to solve the plot feel like barren stretches between the interesting rants on national security (think the John Galt television broadcast in Atlas Shrugged).
It’s much to my surprise then that Brad Thor’s newest novel Backlash solves almost every problem I’ve had with the series up until now. It’s one of the best-dramatized books in the series, it’s razor-focused in terms of its stakes and personal investment and it’s constantly propulsive. Its themes are spoken so much as they’re explored. As a result, it’s darn near close to a perfect pulp spy novel.
The story of Backlash is a direct continuation of the plot of last year’s book Spymaster, which set up numerous threads surrounding a scenario where American and Russian agents darted around Scandanavia looking for missing nuclear warheads. That book ended on a cliffhanger which implied that the main characters were going to be attacked in retribution for their actions by unseen agents. Thus, the beginning of Backlash begins at a crime scene with our lead character Scott Harvath bound in the back of a Russian plane en route to Moscow. The Russian President himself has finally grown tired of the American agent’s effectiveness and he’s assembled a crew of Spetsnaz to drag him to Russia so that he can be tortured, wrung for classified intel, and murdered. From the book’s outset, several of the main characters of the series are dead, having been assassinated prior to the beginning of the story. The status quo at the beginning of the story is one of the darkest moments in the entire series. The lead character’s life has been destroyed before we even started reading — his life is literally falling down around him. Appropriately, the hastily conceived plan to kidnap him falls apart as well as the cheap cargo plane carrying him crashes into the Russian tundra. Now alone, angry, and desperate to survive, the agent is forced to endure the unendurable long enough to escape to Finland so he can seek vengeance on those who wronged him.
Backlash has the best foundational story of any book in the series. From the outset of the book, he has a deeply felt motivation to take revenge and then some on his captors. At the same time, he’s forced to rely on his ability to survive in a situation almost nobody is capable of surviving in. Doing so is easier said than done. He’s alone surviving in freezing conditions with highly trained mercenaries tracking him down. In interviews, Brad Thor has talked about the book as an exploration of how the United States handles hostage retrieval. A lot of the book’s runtime outside of Harvath’s plotline is dedicated to how the government handles the politics of asset retrieval in the context of a foreign sovereign nation. The U.S. president can’t just send helicopters into Russia to pick up downed agents without committing an act of war. The book functions then like a series of mysteries that have to be solved. We get to see the people work out every step in the process of figuring out what is going on, what options are on the table, and who they can even trust.
I do have some nitpicks in regards to how the book approaches such a risky story that cashes in on much of the accumulated empathy of the series. As glad as I am that the book takes a massive risk, it’s something of a lost opportunity that the event that sparks the story happens off-page. The series could’ve used these characters and put them in danger as a means of creating personal stakes which would’ve been the preferred means of creating better stakes for Harvath. At the least, I appreciate that the book didn’t hold back from making an affirmative and massive decision that’s going to have major ramifications for the rest of the series. Really though that’s a nitpick of the series as a whole and not this book in particular. On it’s own, Backlash is one of the best recent books I’ve read in the genre. It’s a lean, emotional story that touches on interesting themes while still staying focused. It’s never preachy and it remains enthralling to the bitter end. If you’re the sort of person who mainlines Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn books like myself, then you’re missing out if you haven’t touched Brad Thor’s books. I’d recommend going back as far as The Blacklist or where I started, but Backlash is one of the best books in the series and one to look forward to.
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