Stephen England is an author who belongs in the realm of literary thriller grandmasters who are rare in today’s world, and his first full-length book – Pandora’s Grave – is a masterpiece that I should have read sooner. It’s not for everyone, especially the Action Junkies like my usual self who wouldn’t find any ‘entertaining action’ here but this book and the entire Shadow Warriors series excels in creating a humanized and dramatic epic of believable, serious, flawed, inspiring, grim, realistic, and a classically intense cast of characters who drag the reader’s minds deep into this emotionally mind blowing work of art.
The writing, plot, pacing, characters and their development, locations, cultural detail, operational realism, politics, technology, and the emotional and psychological impact of Stephen England’s work make me respect his literary genius as this book does read like a classic. All praise aside, Pandora’s Grave requires a lot of focus and patience to read, and I took a few breaks between reading this thriller to start and finish other books.
The story begins in the far past where a Persian city is ravaged by a plague and then moves to the 21st century where our main protagonist, Harry Nichols, has arrived home after executing an assassination in Latin America when his team is assembled in Langley for an operation into Iran. A team of archaeologists is held by the Iranian military and Harry’s team is ordered to undertake a covert rescue for political reasons connected to one of the hostages with the CIA still unaware of the virus/bioweapon which has accidentally infected many of the captives.
Most of the first quarter of the book involves the long and detailed covert insertion by Harry’s team of Shadow Warriors into the Iranian campsite for their rescue mission, simultaneously as a Mossad operation to rescue a hostage who happens to be their deep cover agent in Iran takes place. At the same time, the situation is complicated by an Iranian operative embedded deep within Harry’s team who tries to sabotage their operation at many steps along the way. This epic sequence is more detailed, realistic, dramatic, and intense than the works of Tom Clancy in the 80s and 90s, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Stephen England’s writing shows the logistics, management, operational control from both the characters at offices in Langley and the operators on the ground with the kind of realism that will make the readers feel they are right with the characters for every single moment. This level of realism and detail is smart and interesting but will put off most of today’s readers who want the story to move fast and wish to be entertained like watching a commercial movie. The action in this book will not please the fans of action books and movies, as the action in this book is too realistic. That’s a compliment to the narrative and a recommendation to readers who want a classical and educative thinking person’s story while being a warning for those who’ll be bored of such tales.
The story has too many main characters who all get a lot of importance, have complete motivations and character development, morally conflicting both internally and externally, and have their different plots moving parallelly. Like many of old Clancy’s books, Pandora’s Grave has scenes that go for a few short paragraphs before switching to another for a few short paragraphs, and in this way moving back and forth between too many characters in many different locations involved in different things simultaneously in each long chapter. Readers of current-day books who’d have problems with such writing might have trouble focusing on all the moving parts in this book.
Switching away from many cliches and tropes, the author ventures into a truly original epic that’s filled with morally gray and problematic decisions, the twisted factor of unknown variables, the realistic involvement of many different players with their agendas, a realistically paced but grim journey where there aren’t any proper happy endings. Every character pays heavily and the costs aren’t easy. While there are many post-9/11 thrillers in the 21st century, this series is many levels above all of them, and I’m saying it despite being a long-time Mitch Rapp fan.
I’m usually a reader of profanity-loaded action thrillers and would generally be put off by books without a good level of cussing, but I felt Stephen England’s writing is grimmer and more serious than most profanity-loaded books while completely avoiding any serious cussing in writing. That’s a skill that I find surprising in thriller writers of this subgenre. The story, which spirals into many directions after the long and drawn-out first act, cannot possibly be summarized to fit the size of a review. It’s complex, yet simple and straightforward at the same time, and all the different elements get a more than satisfying conclusion while setting things up for the next books in the Shadow Warriors series, which has been running for around a decade so far.
Without going into any spoilers about the plot, which has too much to even try to summarize, the story involves the Ayatollah, the Iranian President, the Hezbollah, Iranian special forces, Mossad, Israeli covert warriors, a bioweapon that could cause a new black plague, political drama in the US involving a womanizing President who cares only about winning his reelection and the oil market which makes him put the world and the heroes in more danger, the Kurdish militia, the spymasters and operational analysts at Langley, a sleeper agent who plays a larger impact on the story in a heavy mind@#$ way at the end, arms dealers, and a complex plot to turn the middle east into a larger warzone than it ever was with an inciting attack with Harry Nichols and his team of Shadow Warriors caught in the middle.
The cultural detail on different people, their region, their history, their politics, and their conflicts is more richly detailed than most books in the genre, which felt like a heavily educational read. While the pacing is uneven, the final 80+ pages will keep you turning the pages(or tapping on your kindle screen… :P) in an adrenaline-fueled twisted and mind bending read to the finish.