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The First Volume in the Mark Sava Series,
This review is from: The Colonel's Mistake (A Mark Sava Spy Novel) (Paperback)
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Novels, including spy thrillers, are rarely regarded as self-instructional tools, but I learned a lot from reading Dan Mayland's book The Colonel's Mistake. I had heard of Azerbaijan before, but I had no idea that folks there spoke Azeri. Initially, I thought Azerbaijan was an odd location for a book of this kind, but now I know that it has a substantial amount of oil, that it borders Russia, Iran, and the Caspian Sea, and is sometimes referred to as the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Given its strategically crucial location, what better place to set a novel intended to raise spy-versus-spy goose bumps?
Before the fall of the iron curtain, Azerbaijan was dominated by the Soviet Union. I found it really interesting to read about the remnants of the Soviet Empire -- poorly built, unattractive old buildings; automobiles that were ugly and inefficient even when brand new; hulking, rusty derricks, some still pumping oil, but most long since out of commission. Everything the Soviet Union did in Azerbaijan seems to have been on the cheap and without any aesthetic sensibility.
The contrast between remnants of the Soviet presence in Central Asia and the oil rich United Arab Emirates (UAE), another exotic place where some of Mayland's novel plays out, is startling. Given the vast scale of everything being built in the UAE city of Dubai, one wonders if money and taste are just as incompatible as Soviet style communism and taste. Yes, in the modern section of Dubai everything is new, polished, and huge, but maybe this is best translated as garish, trying too hard to conspicuously display this small nation's enormous wealth.
There are, indeed, things to be learned from reading The Colonel's Mistake. Also, since the book is presented as the first in a series with ex-CIA operative Mark Sava as protagonist, we have something to look forward to. After all, Sava's character is underdeveloped in this novel, so we can hope to understand him better in Mayland's subsequent offerings.
While The Colonel's Mistake has merit, the quality of the tale told in this first volume of he Mark Sava series is located somewhere between workmanlike and perfunctory. Clearly, the author has done some homework, thus all the things we learn about seldom-heard-of foreign locations and their inhabitants. However, for a novel intended to be a spy thriller, this one is pretty dull. It has its moments, to be sure, but it is uneven and episodic, maybe even disjointed. Perhaps this is inevitable in a 323 page book with 81 chapters and an epilogue, so why do it this way? It may be an ambitious experiment in the organization of prose ficton, but it doesn't work.
There is a slew of more or less promising characters, but none of them are particularly likeable. No, most aren't innately cruel, duplicitous, or otherwise evil, but they lack depth. Maybe that's just another way of saying they're not well developed, so they wind up seeming one-dimensional. Only Colonel D'Amato, the soldier-bureaucrat whose biography gives the novel its name, is eventually presented with the sort of complexity that makes him really interesting.
As for Mayland's prose style, it's OK but sort of plodding, nothing to get caught up in or excited about. In fact, maybe "it's OK" is a good summary evaluation of the entire book. It's a first novel and it reads like one. I think, however, that subsequent volumes of the Mark Sava series will get progressively better as the author becomes more adept at using his knowledge of remote, exotic, and forbidding places and threatening events in constructing coherent narratives that keep readers on the edges of our seats.