A while back, a member of my primary fandom who works in the entertainment industry and always writes very thoughtful posts about women in the entertainment industry linked to Greg Rucka’s interview in which in explains why/how he writes strong female characters. And later she linked to this interview, in which Rucka talked about his protagonist Tara Chace in the Queen & Country series (graphic novels and regular novels). There’s a lot to mull over between the two pieces, but this bit is what caught my attention:
“[Hollywood is] paralyzed by the fact that it’s a female lead. That’s what it comes down to—they’re paralyzed by the fact that the lead in Queen & Country is a woman and I’ve literally had conversations with executives where they’ve said, ‘Is there any way that we can get a man up there with her?’ and it’s like, ‘Well, sure. That’s not Queen & Country. Feel free to write that yourselves.’”
After reading that, I had to check out the book.
Title: A Gentleman’s Game
Publishing info: copyright 2004, published by Bantam
Based on the graphic novel series published by Oni Press
When an unthinkable act of terror devastates London, nothing will stop Tara Chace from hunting down those responsible. Her job is simple: stop the terrorists before they strike a second time. To succeed, she’ll do anything and everything it takes. She’ll have to kill again.
Only this time the personal stakes will be higher than ever before. For the terrorist counterstrike will require that Tara allow herself to be used as bait by the government she serves. This time she’s turning her very life into a weapon that can be used only once. But as she and her former mentor race toward destiny at a remote terrorist training camp in Saudi Arabia, Tara begins to question just who’s pulling the trigger—and who’s the real enemy. In this new kind of war, betrayal can take any form…including one’s duty to queen and country.
This blurb is…not entirely accurate. Well, strictly speaking, it is, but it skips a huge amount of plot that comes before and also implies that Tara had a choice about being used as bait. [Not so much.]
As you might guess, AGG is an espionage thriller set in the mid-00s.
Let’s start with the title. Spying was considered “a gentleman’s game” by the British in earlier times — why? Because it was a sophisticated undertaking suitable only for the sort of “gentlemen”? One of the characters in the book, not a particularly sympathetic one, laments those lost days, now subsumed in more brutal counter-terrorism activity even as he contributes to the on-going demolition. But it begs the question: what is so “gentlemanly” about spying really? And since the protagonist, the highest ranking active agent, is a woman, there’s just another step away from the traditional MI-6 spy culture. Take yet another step away from the golden/glory days as the plot progresses and the underlying agreement between agency and agent is demolished. By the end of the novel, there are no gentlemen and no games left.
The narration is done in third person, with the perspective of several characters. Although Tara is the main character, readers get as much time in the head of her immediate supervisor and nearly as much in the mind of a third person. There’s even a one-off scene with the POV of a fourth character, which is a little out of place but necessary for the narrative style. Yet this does not scream of head-hopping, the way multiple POVs sometimes do.
Readers get to know pieces of Tara Chace, mostly the pieces that are relevant to how she does her job and what makes her good at it, but not the whole of her. Will more be revealed in later books? I’m not sure it’s necessary. She’s isolated and insulated by her job, yet also vulnerable because of it. She’s extremely skilled yet also disposable, especially in the sense that there appears to be a high rate of burnout or turnover. A love interest is presented in the book, and I felt quite ambivalent about it: while it made sense in context, the outcome was somewhat predictable IMO.
Rucka’s writing didn’t strike me as particularly artful — there are no passages that I marked as favorites — but it flows well and the pacing is excellent. Once I dug into the book, I couldn’t put it down. He does a very good job of including enough politics, history, and background information about the tension and subtext of Saudi-UK-US-Israeli cooperation on terrorism to make the plot hang together without bogging the storyline down. He also doesn’t get mired in technical information (Tom Clancy, I’m looking at your old Jack Ryan books) while including just enough for the various operations to make sense.
One of the largest issues, that of the rights of the individual in the face of national interests, of the dismantling of an institution’s modus operandi as an obstruction to political convenience, is resolved at the level of the character but unresolved on the national and international scale. What will be the result of MI6 basically tossing Tara to the wolves? I guess I’ll find out when I settle into the next book of the series.
I feel a glom of all Rucka’s work coming on.