It’s rare to find a classically great action thriller author in today’s market, and even rarer to find one who narrates a grand tale with a serious literary finesse. James Swallow excels in both, with Nomad, the first in the Marc Dane / Rubicon Group series, which is a paranoia inducing conspiracy thriller that mixes the classically renowned narrative powers of Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming with the modern world, along with its current day technological and social settings.
Opening with a bombing in Barcelona, the book sets the stage for its vicious villains and its classically detailed prose that’s more character driven than technically oriented. Then, we see an MI6/SIS covert strike force named Nomad get ambushed while on a raid in France. The team’s only survivor is Marc Dane, one of the blokes in the van, a technical support specialist who’s not prepared to be an operator. With the tragedy of his team leading back to a high-ranking traitor in the British Intelligence, and the death of the femme fatale – Sam Green – a tactical operator who’s had an on and off fling with Marc, he goes on the run, unsure whom to trust and fighting to stay alive while outsmarting the enemy.
The situation takes a toll on Marc and the book amazingly shows his character journey where he develops in many ways to outsmart, outfight, and outlive his shadowy enemies, while initially riddled with fears, anxieties, paranoia, and confusion for a long time. He is not a traditional action hero for most of the book which is refreshing as Marc, a technical expert, uses his skills, smarts, and cunning to survive, deceive, and handle every situation thrown his way, though failing many times against an overwhelming force. His first kill in a fight with an assassin who’s sent to clear the loose ends from the ambush, is a striking kill or be killed fight for survival that proves James Swallow’s literary capability to make his scenes hit hard emotionally and psychologically by taking the reader into the character in a way that’s rare in many books.
Marc then gets framed by his superiors at British Intelligence, ambushed on an armed transport, then hunted as the supposed traitor. He survives with the help of an unlikely ally who’s just as shadowy, powerful, and dangerous as his enemies. This introduces the female protagonist of the series, Lucy Keyes, a former Delta Force operator turned traitor and fugitive from her country for reasons not explored in this first book, who’s in the employ of the shadowy PMC Rubicon Group that’s headed by an elusive billionaire Ekko Solomon. This Rubicon Group is not a simple commercially motivated mercenary group, but a morally driven unit that’s almost like a vigilante organization taking upon itself to get involved and fix situations where national governments cannot. This is because Ekko Solomon, a former child soldier in Africa, knows that all national governments act in self interest and are inescapable from internal corruptions.
Rubicon, and Marc’s, common enemy is the Combine, a shadowy organization dealing arms to extremist groups and creating controlled conflicts in their self interest. Such organizations can seem common in the action thriller genre, but James Swallow’s Combine is showcased on lines of a Ludlum-esque secret organization and also like the Spectre group in the 007 lore. The Combine plays a role as the villainous group for the overarching plot of the first few books in this series, and they stand out in the genre as one of the best fictional shadowy evil organizations in the 21st century for its depth, detail, deceptions, power, and reach.
A major element of the plot is about a splinter group of jihadists who use extreme measures and are funded and controlled by the Combine. This group, headed by the psychotically maniacal yet smart and fanatical Khadir, uses an orphanage in the Turkish desert for most of the book to condition a group of teen boys for their attack that involves surgically planting explosives into their abdomen and sending them into a crowd as unware and undetectable suicide bombers. This plotline has many scenes from the perspective of one of the orphans who’s smart enough to question and understand what’s going on, but is sent to a dark fate by Khadir until he crosses paths with Marc and Lucy. The other characters revolving around this attack plot-line are a group of mercs working for Combine who are sent to help Khadir’s terror group.
In its slow and tedious narrative, Nomad spins a long and gradually progressing thriller on the lines of 80’s or 90’s Ludlum, and takes a long while to pick up its pace. Though the tension gets very high near the end, most of the first three-fourths of the book can be a drag for today’s normal action thriller readers. The action, spycraft, cyber-skills, techno-detail, character depth and development, guns and gear, and the suspense fueled writing makes it a worthwhile classic for the genre, despite being too wordy in its prose. The story moves from France to England, the Alps, Italy and Turkey to a final showdown at New York.
Marc Dane goes from being a scared technician to a lone operator fueled by revenge and survival to a professional killer action hero by the end. The character’s past in the Royal Navy has made Marc capable of using firearms and experienced in combat, though a tragic accident while in the Navy had made Marc choose to not risk his life by opting for technical work at the MI6-SIS. Lucy Keyes is the main action character of this series with her work in special operations and then as a mercenary/assassin, while being an enigma for most of the book. She and Marc turn their character relationship from mutual dislike to mutual respect through the journey of this book, but it’s a good thing that the author hasn’t forced any romance between them and their friendship is both hilarious and emotional at times. Ekko Solomon, the bigger enigma of this series, is an unique and interesting figure for the genre as a whole.
James Swallow tends to get very dramatic at times with his prose, narration, and in the way the plot resolves, but still gives a satisfying ending with more things to develop in the series. Considering this is his first original thriller, after a career of writing tie-in books for many sci-fi franchises, there are some flaws in the technicalities and with the uneven pacing, but this book hits hard enough to leave a mark on the classically serious action thriller genre for many decades to come.