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The Exphoria Code Paperback – January 1, 2017
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Top reviews from the United States
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There’s a reason that writers like to stick with the Cold War. The real world is changing so quickly it’s always possible that your cutting edge storyline with be yesterday’s news by the time it hits the shelves or worse, look horribly dated. Achieving the goal of making a modern story that’s also a bit timeless can be tough but I think Johnston pulls it off.
We are introduced to Brigette Sharp, hacker extraordinaire and MI6 desk jockey whose first attempt at being a field operative went pear shaped.The story begins as she’s picking up the pieces and deciding whether she’s going to try and get back in the field, continue to ride a desk or quit SIS altogether. Of course she gets dragged back into an operation, otherwise we wouldn’t have a story, but Johnston isn’t afraid to have things go wrong for his lead and let her make mistakes. Too often fictional spies never error and are perfect performing automatons. Sharp screws things up, jumps to wrong conclusions and runs from trouble. It makes her a real human and less of a one-note action hero. The plot involves a mole hunt because it’s not a spy story unless there’s a mole rattling around somewhere. Johnston finds a good mix of real world spying and deduction with a bit of Bondian action to raise the stakes. He’s also not afraid of throwing out jargon and terms that might not be familiar but trusts you can keep up. The ending which has various characters we’ve met converging to stop a terror threat is truly exciting.
If looking at criticisms, I would have liked to see Johnston provide a bit more sense of place. The action moved and he created interesting characters but the spaces they inhabited lacked pop. If we’re in the desert, I want to feel the heat and in a office space I want to hear that air vent that keeps rattling and is making me go crazy. I would also caution Johnston against letting the reader get too far ahead of the main character. It’s one thing when the writer tips the reader off in advance, ala Columbo, to important information your hero doesn’t have. However when the reader has the same information as the character and can easily put the pieces together there’s a danger of making your lead character seem like a dim bulb. As it has been said - “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.”
Finally there’s a trip Sharp takes late in the story that feels like too large a logical leap. I understand why he did it but I think the same realization could have been achieved in a different, more believable way. Criticisms aside, Johnston has created a three dimensional spy that I’m eager to see again. We also met some interesting secondary characters that are worthy of further exploration that he could expand on to build his spy ensemble. In the real world, most spies are working as a team and I appreciate books that try to show that. The book sets up things nicely to continue with a sequel and, based on the way things are left, I think the next one could even top his first in the series.
TL;DR - Johnston does for hackers what le Carré did for short, fat office managers - turn them into spies you can root for.
Steeped in the literature history of spy craft and the game, Johnston lifts Le Carre te al into the 21st century with a believable female protagonist, a tech infused plot, ‘realistic’ action and development and an interesting cast of characters.
The plot moves at a pace, flashbacks to Syria and deftly handled parallel plotting keep character and plot on the go. The writing keeps you humming through the book - we know the day will be saved but getting there is great fun
(Ps interesting to note Dan Moren’s Novel is often bought with this - the power of podcasts (would also recommend that too))
Solid read from start to finish and hopefully just the first in a long series of books featuring Brigitte Sharp.
Top reviews from other countries
Brigitte Sharp is anglo/french, working for MI6 as a reformed hacker. After some strange posts start turning up in Usenet groups (yes I am old enough to remember using them), she ends up getting dragged into a mole hunt for the UKs latest development.
There's a lot of nice touches in here. A "reformed" goth, which isn't done as heavy handed as I’d expected, the use of Usenet, and even the methods used are all done really well, with a light assured touch. Brigitte herself is not as clear cut as I'd like, a little too 2 dimensional, but as this is the first of what looks like a series, that’s something I’m sure will improve as the series continues.
There's a couple of places where it's fairly obvious what’s going to happen, although that may be reading too many of these books, on the other hand, the final scenes at the Shard are inspired. It's a beautiful left field solution I didn't see coming.
It's interesting that in the acknowledgments at the end, Greg Rucka is mentioned. This does remind me a lot of his Queen and Country series. Not that the characters are similar in characteristic, but more in the way the authors handle them, While the author isn't quite at the level of Rucka yet, it wouldn't surprise me if he caught up with him soon, on the evidence of this. The next book will be interesting.
Brigitte Sharp works for MI6, an ex hacker who had lost all confidence after her last mission went fatally wrong. Spending most of her time in chat rooms, chatting with like-minded people she felt more a home behind a screen. After coming across some strange posts, that looked like artwork, her and closest friend Ten get embroiled in what they think is a bit of fun, but not long after Brigitte comes to realise how serious the posts are.
Brigitte was likeable from the start, she wasn’t one of those cocky spies that you usually read about. It was hard for her as she could not tell anyone about her job and her relationship with her sister was a bit strained. Her love of goth style and music made her an unlikely spy, but that is what I liked about her, as she was easily overlooked as non threatening. She was happy to have a desk job and spent a lot of her time trying to stop them sending her back in the field. But after losing her friend she knew that she had no choice and become the spy she was. As the story progressed you also get to know about Brigitte’s fatal mission which is written as a number of flashbacks, but it is not near the end that we get to know the full story.
The author has a way of leading you down the wrong path and there was many a time that I thought I knew where the story was going and who the mole was. However, when the mole was revealed, I got it completely wrong, but that was only the beginning. The story gets more intense and you get to see just how good Brigitte’s skills are, but she does not do it alone. Like all good spies she has a good team working with her and as a threat becomes more imminent she gets help from MI5 and GCHQ. This book is full of action, fast paced and I was hooked from the beginning. This is a standalone story and I hope there will be more from Brigitte Sharp.
There's one other element of the book that I haven't seen anyone mention, possibly because it's something that only a particular sub-section of readers is likely to pick up on. The heroine of the tale, Brigitte Sharp, is a not-entirely-ex goth. In the hands of a less knowledgeable author, that might be the cue for some embarrassingly clunky cliches. But as a former inhabitant of the UK gothic underground himself, Antony Johnston has actually been there, done that, and knows what it's really like.
This means that his main character's background rings uncannily true. Brigitte Sharp spent much of the 1990s hanging out online, on Usenet newsgroups - and still does, which perhaps credits Usenet with more of an ongoing existence than it really has these days. She listens to bands like the Dream Disciples, VNV Nation, and Faith & The Muse. Most readers, I suspect, will assume that the band names and internet references are fictitious. But the bands are real, and while there never was a newsgroup called uk.london.gothic-netizens, anyone who ever spent time on uk.people.gothic, alt.gothic, or other such hangouts, will recognise the virtual landscape. It's as if there's a hidden level to the book: stuff that only a relative handful of readers will get.
Elsewhere, there are moments where Antony Johnston seems less sure of his ground. The way the Russian hard-man disables Brigitte's Fiat by opening the bonnet and removing the starter motor is rather implausible. On most cars the starter motor is only accessible by grovelling underneath and wangling a spanner onto some awkward nuts. Personally, if I were a Russian agent, and I needed to disable my oppo's car, I would grab the knife strapped to my forearm (all spies have a knife strapped to their forearm, it's regulations) and stab a couple of tyres. The classic methods are still the best!
There's also the curious case of Giles Finlay, Brigitte's boss. He's a convincingly drawn middle-management type, with a habit of exclaiming "I should coco!" to convey enthusiastic approval. But I've always understood that to be an ironic expression, which means the opposite of what it says: enthusiastic approval, meaning unenthusiastic disdain. To me, it means roughly the same as "Not on your Nelly!" or "Come off it!" When a policeman asks Giles if he'd like a cup of tea. Giles replies "I should bloody coco!" Whereupon the copper hands him a cuppa. I was thinking, hang on, he just said he *didn't* want a cup of tea - didn't he?
The end of the story sets us up for further adventures, as Brigitte is given her own squad of cross-departmental operatives to take on the bad guys. In a way I would have liked the main villain in this story to escape to fight another day, and appear in future books, rather like Biggles had a recurring adversary in the shape of Erich von Stalhein. As it stands, the goodies are going to have to fight new baddies next time. But I'm looking forward to taking the next ride with Brigitte and her officially sanctioned A Team. I do hope the budget will stretch to a custom van.
It's a real page turner, intelligent and fast-paced, with a satisfying ending. An excellent start to a new series.