Secret agents. Espionage. International threats. These are just a few of the ingredients to a perfect spy thriller that will keep you hungry for more. Trojan Horse by S. Lee Manning ramps up the drama and takes it to a new level — one of deception from those you are meant to trust.
I had the pleasure of diving into her book on NetGalley, a site that allows readers to read and review books before they are published. NetGalley is like getting an advanced readers copy from the author. I was lucky to come across this book. It filled up my weekend under shady trees and a cool autumn breeze. However, nothing about my brain was calm and relaxed. Starting from the first page, the book pulled me into the sinister threat at hand.
Here are a few things I thought stood out in Trojan Horse that got me to recommend it to other enthusiasts of spy stories. Warning: minor spoilers ahead!
First, the premise!
Protagonist Kolya Petrov, a Russian Jewish American, works as a secret agent for the fictional undercover government agency known as ECA. With the threat of a nuclear meltdown underway, the ECA resorts to new desperate means. The notorious Romanian terrorist, Mihai Cuza, conspires to kill any secret agent that gets too close to uncovering his sinister plans. The ECA creates a virus — a Trojan Horse — disguised as the top secret database that Cuza is after. They use it to infiltrate his plans from his computer without him knowing. The catch? Getting the virus to Cuza. They solve this issue by allowing him to kidnap one of ECA’s agents to get to the alleged ECA database. This is where Petrov comes in.
It’s pretty common in spy stories to see secret agents and even undercover agencies go to extreme lengths to save the world. In this case, extreme lengths turn to an extreme gamble on Petrov’s life as he becomes the guinea pig to the head of the ECA, Margaret Bradford’s, dangerous plan.
At the same time, the ultimate goal of intercepting Cuza’s diabolical plan through the Trojan Horse is only possible if the whole experience is authentic. That is, as long as Petrov doesn’t know it’s a ploy, Cuza doesn’t know. Each character has questionable morality, which drives the plot forward and ups the stakes. They become more than just side or staple characters. They are realistic human beings making difficult–and sometimes shitty–choices.
Pretty Sinister Bad Guy
There’s nothing quite like the seemingly sociopathic antagonist with an air of gentlemanly flair. Mihai Cuza fills this role beautifully. From the moment you are introduced to his first gruesome act in the beginning chapter (without giving away too many spoilers, let’s say it pierces right through you), you know this is not the guy you want to mess around with. Cuza, a descendant of Vlad the Impaler, has an inherently sinister nature. There is something about adding a historical touch, especially when it involves a famous tyrant, that makes things more interesting. Cuza’s scenes throughout the book are chilling, and there were many moments where I was at the edge of my seat expecting the worst.
Of course, Cuza isn’t the only antagonist. In fact, we get a range of ‘bad guys’ in this novel that stand out in their own way. For instance, while Cuza is perceived to be more complex, his henchman, Max, is straight up evil. Another example is Dr. Stanescu, who is a bit more considerate when treating a tortured Petrov. There is also Frick, who, without giving away too much, is met with a choice from his actions. The cool thing about this book is that we’re offered this variety. The author introduces not only sucky, morally dubious, characters on the ‘good side,’ but also gives a dose of human moments from the ‘bad side’.
Love and Camaraderie
The plot kept me engaged with each heart-stopping moment. But I was also invested in the relationships. I like that the author explores not just Petrov’s relationship with his love interest, but his friendship with the other agents as well, most notably Jonathan. Throughout the novel, you get a taste of every desperate measure Petrov takes to keep himself and the woman he loves alive. You also get Jonathan’s side and his way of responding to his best friend’s kidnapping and imprisonment. There are several moments of camaraderie that shine through, putting the test of loyalty and love to work. The latter would ultimately prove if a rescue operation is successful or a bust.
I feel that any genre, a spy thriller or not, becomes ten times more interesting when relationships and bonds are tested. It makes the experience more human. It allows a reader like me to crave for more exploration into those relationships and more adventures with the characters.
The book explores themes of anti-seminitism, which I thought added an interesting layer to the story. With most international spy thrillers, the tension normally boils down to stark differences in ideals and loyalty to one’s cause. However, few hit hard with race. Both Kolya Petrov and his girlfriend are Jewish. The blatant racism towards Jewish people from Cuza’s crew and Cuza himself brings the tension to more despicable heights, painting a very fascist, ultranationalist, anti-western mindset prevalent during WWII. It’s interesting to see that element discussed within the more conservative Romanian corner, especially when Cuza is driven by political motives.
S. Lee Manning’s spy novel Trojan Horse is a great read for any spy-thriller enthusiasts seeking a multi-layered experience. This book is more than just a suave Bond-savvy secret-agent protagonist infiltrating a foreign mastermind. Although somewhat akin to James Patterson’s Alex Cross series, Trojan Horse offers something new, sweeping the reader into not just the characters’ lives but having them question the moralities of saving the world. Manning fleshes out her plots with her experiences in law and her interests in espionage and Russian culture (Petrov’s background). I look forward to more of her work in the future!
S. Lee Manning’s spy novel Trojan Horse is available for pre-order on Amazon, set to release for both Kindle and paperback on Oct. 16. If anyone wants to get a head start, they can request to read a copy on NetGalley at https://www.netgalley.com/
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Featured image credit: Kajetan Sumila/Unsplash