Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Splinter Cell (novel) review

    The Splinter Cell series by Ubisoft has about as much to do with Tom Clancy as I have to do with the proliferation of grimdark fiction. Which is to say, not much other than my name on a few works. Tom Clancy created the character of Sam Fisher as well as Third Echelon but everything after that was the work of Ubisoft's writers. Despite this, the Tom Clancy name has a good deal of clout in literary circles and they wanted to see if there would be an audience for it. There was, albeit not as large as the video game audience.

    While the series is officially written by David Michaels, this is a pseudonym for a variety of authors of which the first was Raymond Benson. I am a huge Raymond Benson fan from his time on the James Bond books as well as his Hitman novel. He's a great writer and the perfect guy for writing spy stories of a slightly exaggerated nature, which is what the Splinter Cell games are all about. So, is it any good? I think so, albeit more of a satisfying hamburger than lobster bisque. Call it Tom Clancy-lite, if you will.

    The premise for Splinter Cell is Sam Fisher is a 47-year-old ex-CIA agent and Navy Seal who has been recruited in his middle-age to serve as a spy for a secret branch of the NSA. Sam is not an assassin but someone who is designed to use his covert ops skills to go behind enemy lines and undercover to gather information from hostile situations. You know, what actual spies are supposed to do.

    A secret techno-savvy Arabic terrorist organization known as the Shadows (basically, ISIL before ISIL existed) is threatening Western-allied countries around the world. The Shadows are assisted by a Russian-backed crime syndicate known as the Shop. It's the sort of alliance which you'd find in a Splinter Cell game and Sam swiftly finds himself in-between the two. Sadly, in a Kiefer Sutherland's 24-like twist, his daughter Sarah ends up becoming a pawn to use against him.

   The biggest appeal of this novel is the fact it gets into the head of Sam Fisher, a character who is too often ignored in the games in order to focus on gameplay. Raymond Benson creates an image of a reserved taciturn man who has been isolated by his job but loves what little time he gets to spend with his family. Unlike James Bond, Sam is forced to be near-celibate because his job means he can never allow anyone to get too close without endangering them or the secrecy of his work.

    While threatening Sam's daughter Sarah is a somewhat easy way to create drama, it works well here as we get to know her before it happens as well as suffer through her ordeal. It's her plot rather than something which is designed to give Sam motivation to rescue her. The fact Raymond Benson was able to craft so realistic a character is something which makes the scenes where she is imprisoned and tortured all the more moving.

    The villains are nothing to write home about with Arabic terrorists and renegade Russians being played out by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Even so, Benson adds his own twists to the formulaic foes by having the leader of the Shadows more interested in his vendetta against Iraq than fighting America. The Russians are also businessman first and foremost, uninterested in the specter of a fallen Soviet Union. I found the would-be honeypot Eli to be the most interesting of them as he finds himself less than happy with the fact he's led his fake girlfriend to her (apparent) doom.

    In a very real way, this book reads like Tom Clancy-lite with realism juxtaposed against dangerous spy adventures. It's a fun little popcorn thriller and one I recommend to anyone who wants to enjoy reading about a semi-realistic spy against only slightly exaggerated terrorists. Certainly, I'm going to read the rest of the series.


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