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Book Review: Barbarossa

Several weeks ago, I exchanged e-mails with a fairly new author by the name of Charles Faddis, who asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing his novels Codename Aphrodite and Barbarossa. I said yes for two reasons: first, because the espionage genre has always interested me, and second, because both books are based on the author’s real life experiences as a former CIA Ops officer. He spent twenty years in the Near East, South Asia and Europe running operations against terrorist groups, rogue states and WMD smuggling networks.

Faddis sent me copies of his work, and I eagerly began reading. It was disappointing, then, to finish Codename Aphrodite and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t something I could – in good conscience and good taste – recommend.

The story was interesting, to be sure; but that’s about the only positive thing I can say about it. The characters were poorly developed, the dialogue was mediocre, the plotting less-than-stellar. As if that weren’t enough, excessive amounts of strong language and crudely explicit sexual material (90% of which had nothing to do with the story) were thrown into the mix. All in all, it was neither a fun nor edifying reading experience.

Considering this, you’ll understand my trepidation as I started the second book, Barbarossa. Sequels are notorious for being worse than their predecessors. What reason had I to think this one would be any different? None.

Imagine my surprise when Barbarossa proved to be an exception.

The story follows ex-CIA operative Bill Boyle, who accepts the challenge of traveling deep into the mountains of Kurdistan in pursuit of a nuclear weapon that has fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists. Rallying a small cadre of friends, Boyle sets out to complete his mission as swiftly and securely as possible – easy isn’t part of the equation.

For starters, the quality of the writing in Barbarossa is much better than in Codename Aphrodite. There are still some rough spots (especially toward the beginning), but overall, Faddis’ prose is cleaner, leaner, and better polished; less like an amateur in search of footing and more like a writer who’s serious about his work.

The story is also superior, in my opinion, and much more engaging. It’s brisk, without feeling rushed or skimpy, and kept my attention for the duration of the book’s four hundred and fifty plus pages. Simple, but not simplistic; entertaining, but not unintelligent. And of course, Faddis’ first-hand experience in the very field he’s writing about adds a welcome sense of realism to the yarn.

Certain characters introduced in Codename Aphrodite are better developed here and allowed to take on more than one dimension. Boyle, for instance, is more likable and easy to sympathize with: previously his most notable “qualities” were drunkenness and a generally bitter demeanor. In Barbarossa, he’s sobered up, and the more applaudable aspects of his person, such as courage, perseverance, and selflessness, are easier to see.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for every character; particularly Aphrodite, Boyle’s love interest and wife-to-be. She still comes across as underwhelming, with little to set her apart from the humdrum crowd of today’s heroines. (Modern fiction’s obsession with “beautiful but deadly” women is becoming rather tiresome, don’t you think?)

Gritty is probably the best way to describe this book’s content. Violence is rough and often bloody, with numerous people meeting their end via bullet, blade, or explosive. Thankfully, the amount of strong language is significantly lower than in Codename Aphrodite; it’s still present, but nowhere near as pervasive. Sexual content is restricted to  some crude references.

So do I recommend Barbarossa? Yes. It’s not perfect, but the positives outweigh the negatives, making it a fun, fast-paced, decently-plotted spy thriller for older readers. I’ll be on the look out Faddis’ next work – he may be one of those authors who gets better with each book.

(I received this book free from the author in exchange for a review.
I was not required to write a positive review.)