Recently I entered my first ever online book giveaway. I won it. The book in question is a spy thriller in every sense of the term. It is written by an Australian who lived and worked in his country’s officialdom for years. While Australia has had a strong and growing thriller novel scene, it has never quite gotten the attention it deserves. This makes it all the more delightful when finding a true diamond. Evoking the gritty realism of espionage away from the tourist traps of Old-World Europe, Kingdom of Spies by Bevan G Roberts, is a surprise highlight of my 2022 reading year.
The story focuses on a unique form of ‘Pest Control’, the subject of which is the population of Islamic Terrorists on the seemingly insignificant Indonesian island of North Maluku. In cooperation with their Indonesian counterparts, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service has bribed, threatened, bullied and sweet talked the leaders of the major Islamist groups in what is a major hub for Daesh, to fight each other instead of going abroad. Through turning the island into a warzone, the men and women working at R. G. Casey House hope to keep the terrorists completely distracted and away from dreams of reaching Melbourne’s Collins Street latte bars, or the hotels of Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Managing the operation on the ground is Australian spy Jordan Carter, a daring intelligence officer. As the book opens, he and a Kopassus team find themselves heading to an asset rendezvous when they are targeted by an unconventional assassination method. An angry mob which proceeds to flood the meeting location, burn down a Mosque and nearly end Carter’s career with a crowbar to the skull. Managing to escape, Carter puts on a brave face, but his Indonesian partners and his masters back in Canberra realize the jig may be up on their operation. There is a compromise, and all the assets who have been painstakingly brought to heel may be in trouble. Over in Jakarta, journalist Ana Kovacevic hears of the riot and makes plans to fly to North Maluku and realizes there may be a story on her hands. And in Canberra, high ranking ASIS bureaucrat Andy Gibson wrestles with his fellow Australian spymasters about what is to be done as Project ‘ANVIL’ falls apart and one of their countries critical but little-known national interests is put in total peril.
I liked Kingdom of Spies for many reasons. This may be the author’s first novel but his prose is sharp and assured. It brings to life a little travelled setting, in all its misery and terror, leaving a deep impact on the reader once the final page is turned. This harrowing atmosphere is kept up to the blood splattered and bitter end, with each near miss and murder skillfully sprung. Roberts also uses his experiences in his past life to outstanding effect.
The little bits of bureaucratic color, whether in the Canberra bubble, or the struggles of its overseas functionaries in the Commonwealth’s most important immediate neighbors, enrich the narrative and even, in the case of the bureaucrats’ sarcastic asides about their profession, break up the tension at key moments. But of course, the heart of a good story is not the technothriller props, but its players, and Roberts has created some interesting characters for his debut novel.
We have the capable spy who loves to take risks, some which increasingly cannot be considered calculated ones. There’s the driven journalist who is soon faced with either accepting the truth about what is right for her country, or what is the right thing to do. Then, there’s the Australian spymasters who are tormented by trying to wrestle with long term benefits and short-term tactical actions to prevent disaster falling upon themselves. Seeing these conflicts intersect and play out in a shocking bloodbath is one of the thrilling delights of the story.
It has been said among some publications and highbrow literary circles, that the spy novel is dead. Bollocks. New talent continues to flood into the genre, and with it, new ideas, new situations and new willingness to push conventions and tropes to the limit. And Kingdom of Spies is a triumphant example of this. Bevan Roberts has made a strong, outstanding start to his writing career.
A grim, mature tale which wrestles with life and death problems lurking beyond the headlines, Kingdom of Spies brings its readers into the realities of 21st century spying, the ones away from the Embassy Cocktail Circuit. Told with a skill and confidence that draws the reader with aplomb, it is a story that does not hold back as the reckoning for a thousand ‘cruel necessities’ looms over the sinners and the sinned, waging their covert war to the death.
Lim Lo Suy
30 September 2022