In A Handful of Kings, Mark Jacobs combines a taut thriller plot with a love story, and fleshes it out with a wealth of detail about Spain and the American Foreign Service. I was engaged by the three-dimensional characters and caught up in the action as the story unfolded. Living in Madrid, I was doubly delighted to see this city feature so prominently in the novel (even though the action takes place also in Colombia and the United States). As Jacobs writes about an encounter in Madrid's El Retiro Park, for example, I could picture the scene vividly in my mind. He also does a great job of capturing the intangible things that make Madrid Madrid, even down to the Ducados cigarette smoke filling up one's favorite Spanish bar. Jacobs, who was a former Foreign Service Officer, does a wonderful job of opening a window onto the environment of a U.S. embassy and the people who run it for the general reader.
Thirty-three years old Vicky Sorrel, disenchanted with the State department, believes it is time to start over. She plans to quit her job as a cultural attaché assigned to the American Embassy in Spain. Vicky also informs her lover Wyatt Willis that she is leaving him behind. When it comes to her job, everyone wishes her the best. When it comes to her lover, he puts on a public show accusing her of betrayal to their eternal love. Easily ignoring Wyatt, who added layers of skepticism to the cynical Vicky, she continues to shut down her life in Spain until her plans are disrupted when popular American author Jack Baines asks for help. The Columbia rebel Badger, in an attempt to embarrass the United States, has kidnapped Jack's nephew. Vicky has doubts about Jack's story, but agrees to help him, not realizing what she is getting into. Though exciting as a thriller and insightful in terms of Spain and embassy life overseas, A HANDFUL OF KINGS seems a bit short of royalty. The story line moves quickly and the Foreign Service is interesting to watch in action. Vicky is a former optimist, a believer in the American way, but her work has converted her into a delightful doubting Thomasina. The weak link to an otherwise fine tale is Jack, who at times acts like a lone STONE COWBOY and just seems no where near Vicky's level. Still Mark Jacobs provides a solid thriller with a shot of romance that will please suspense fans wondering what is really going on. Harriet Klausner
Mark Jacobs paints the disparate characters in this, his second and best novel, with the broad impressionistic brush strokes of a writer who loves language. When the players in this novel are thrown together by design or by fate and begin to ricochet off of each other with increasing speed, Jacobs' magical word pictures will recall for many readers the verbal mastery of Graham Greene. Jacobs depicts with the clarity of one who has been there, the inner conflict of the young female foreign service officer, who is fed up with government bureaucracy yet still drawn to the addictive drama of living as a stranger in a strange land. The pathetic preening of Jack, the "famous" author calls to mind a number of Greene's most vulnerable and flawed characters. The plot moves slowly at the outset as the characters are drawn and given their places on a broad international stage. The pace picks up quickly, however, as this thoughtful character driven novel morphs into a page turning spy thriller, without ever sacrificing the beautiful language that is the hallmark of this talented author.
Not only is this a page-turning tale, but you could wander through many bookstore aisles before matching the quality and imaginative language found in "A Handful of Kings." My only criticism is that the driving impulse to get on with the story was inhibited by the contradictory need to slow down and savor the robust writing. The settings and locales are authentic and convincing, . The carefully woven suspense-inducing strands of narrative eventually are drawn together in a startling climax. The world of international espionage bursts from the page in explosive colors. One might hope that Vicky would return in future works, with or without Jack and Wyatt. Whatever...just keep 'em coming.