Damn. I can't remember the last time I read a book that frustrated me to extent that The Hydra Protocol did. There were aspects of it that were amazing, and others that made me want to bang my head in frustration. I'm tempted to say I forced only myself to finish it so I could sit back and say "Ha! I told you so!" but, as much truth as there is to that statement, it was an enjoyable enough ride that I didn't want to get off before the end.
The latest Jim Chapel mission from David Wellington is an exciting, action-packed thriller that evokes a very classic cold war sort of vibe. It's something of a throwback to the 80s, but with some more contemporary technology and cinematic battle sequences. Jim gets some great moments here, starting with a deep-sea dive into a scuttled Russian submarine, and ending with a rather foolish leap onto a moving plane (that we'll get back to when we talk about The Bad). Rendered strangely vulnerable by troubles in his personal life, Jim really struggles to maintain his professionalism here, opening up to (and taking his frustrations out on) Angel, and skirting the line of impropriety with Nadia.
As for Nadia, she's a gorgeous Russian agent with the body of a gymnast and the heart of a patriot. She's a fun, mysterious character, with some incredible fight scenes of her own. She's at her best when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, but she's not too shabby with stolen construction equipment either. There are some great set pieces here as well, with the action taking us across the globe, from the waters off the shore of Cuba, to the Afghan desert, to the strip-mined landscape of Siberia.
It's hard to talk about The Bad without getting too far into spoiler territory, but both Jim and Director Hollingshead make some very foolish, very stupid decisions here. When a beautiful Russian spy comes to you with an outlandish story, outside the normal diplomatic channels, there's probably a very good reason. When that same beautiful Russian spy comes to you with a mission that just seems too good to be true . . . well, it probably is. Unfortunately, Jim's foolishness doesn't stop there. Bogdan's frantic tapping away at a customized MP3 player had me suspicious from the start, but Jim doesn't bat an eye - even when it drives his electronic bug director crazy!
It doesn't stop there either. Jim makes one bad choice after another, and bestows far too much blind trust in two people he doesn't even know. Wellington is clearly trying to demonstrate a man on the edge, made vulnerable by a personal loss, but there's a big difference between softening a character and subverting him. Finally, to bring us back to that foolish leap onto a moving plane I mentioned earlier, it's one of the few scenes that stretch the willing suspension of disbelief too far, especially when you remember he's without his mechanical arm at the moment!
Frustrating. Pure and simple. There was real potential here. Jim Chapel is a hero I've come to enjoy reading about; Wellington is an author whose style I like; and the cold war angle really appealed to me. There is a great story here at the core of The Hydra Protocol, but it's sabotage by Jim's foolishness. I realize he's always been set up to be something of a 'normal' man, rather than a brilliant, muscle-bound super-spy, but even the 'normal' man reading this can recognize when the hero is being an idiot.
Hardcover, 448 pages
Expected publication: May 13th 2014 by William Morrow