Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Book review: Gabriel Allon Series by Daniel Silva

I have been blogging for a decade and have 370+ blog posts to my credit. Believe me when I tell you that this post has been the most time-consuming one so far (10 months to be exact). I grew two humans in less time than that 😂

I started reading Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series after it came heavily recommended by my husband. I began the 20-book series last year November. A few pages into the first book and I knew I had something special on my hands. Since the first book made such a great impression on me, I was inclined to do a book review on it but when my husband suggested I do a series review instead, I scoffed at the idea. Reviewing 20 books, in one post seemed like a crazy undertaking to me at the time. But here I am.....doing exactly that! 

Gabriel Allon is the main protagonist in Daniel Silva's thriller and espionage series that is centered around Israeli intelligence. The series takes the reader on a journey that showcases the leading man's evolution from a grieving recluse to one of Israel's most valuable assets. While on the path to becoming a promising young artist, Gabriel was plucked from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design by Ari Shamron, Israel's chief of intelligence (known to you and me as Mossad but it isn't called that in the novels). The Palestinian group Black September had just murdered eleven Israeli athletes and coaches at the Olympic games in Munich and Shamron wanted his young charge to serve as his instrument of vengeance in an operation code named "Wrath of God". From there, Gabriel Allon goes on to becomes a world-class art restorer, master spy and assassin who frequently undertakes dangerous missions at the behest of his service and interests of his country. 

The main themes of this series revolves around the history of Israel, Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first book was published in 2000 and the latest in 2020 and in that time span, Silva has drawn a geopolitical arc starting with the Holocaust, Nazi wartime crimes and the complicity of the Vatican and the Swiss in Nazi wartime looting. He then moves to the Palestinian conflict, Black September and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. After that, the series takes on the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the Russian oligarchs. Then comes 9/11, the global war on terror, Iraq war and the Arab Spring. Even the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has some chapters devoted to it. 

Daniel Silva is immensely knowledgeable about politics and world affairs owing to his journalism background (including CNN) and his stint as a correspondent in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war.  It helps that his wife is CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel who is consistently acknowledged for providing inputs and ideas to his novels. Silva shares insightful commentary through his characters throughout the series. I will admit that I wasn't well-versed with Middle Eastern politics but thanks to this series, I have gained a much better understanding of it. 

After completing the entire series, it makes sense to me to review all the novels together because collectively, the series connects the dots of events running from past to present, gives the reader historical perspective, captures the complete character arcs, explores the relationships between the characters, covers the protagonist's evolving family and professional status and brings a sense of completion to his remarkable journey.  

So here is a basic plot summary on each of the 20 novels followed by my thoughts on the series. 

The Kill Artist 

(Gabriel Allon Series #1)

A complex, fast-paced and absorbing spy thriller revolving around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This novel is the first introduction to Gabriel Allon, the main protagonist of the series. The former Israeli intelligence officer has shunned the world of espionage and is living the life of a recluse while working as an art restorer in a quiet seaside village in England. The tortured soul that he is, finds himself drawn back into action for the interests of his homeland. 

When Gabriel learns that the man who was responsible for destroying his life by killing his young son and maiming his wife is out of hiding and plotting to foil the Israeli-Palestine peace negotiations by carrying out a wave of high profile terrorist attacks, he grabs the opportunity for vengeance and closure.

His adventure takes him on a whirlwind trip across three continents - Europe, the Middle East and North America.

The story offers a glimpse into Allon's tragic backstory and features an array of fascinating supporting characters including the formidable Memuneh, a beautiful and brave French Jewish model seeking retribution for her family's death in the Holocaust, and an utterly charming London art dealer. 

The English Assassin 

(Gabriel Allon Series #2)

An intriguing thriller chronicling Switzerland's shameful World War II record of profiteering and complicit collaboration with Nazi Germany

Gabriel Allon travels to Zurich, Switzerland to restore a valuable painting belonging to a wealthy Swiss banker only to find him murdered. Extricating himself from a sticky situation involving the Swiss authorities, Gabriel teams up with Anna Rolfe, a famous violinist and daughter of the deceased banker to find some answers. Through the fiery Anna, he finds out that the priceless illegal collection of Impressionist masterpieces owned by her father is missing. 

Lurking in the shadows is a secret group in Switzerland whose sole aim is to make sure these paintings are not found. In the midst of his risky investigation and globetrotting, Gabriel has to avoid assassination attempts from a worthy adversary - an English assassin from Corsica. 

Even though Switzerland remained neutral during World War II, in the name of questionable legislation, personal assets plundered from Jews could be sold and traded in the country without fear of loss of profit or the forced return to the rightful owner. The author skillfully interweaves this historical travesty with convincing fiction. It is common knowledge that to this day, the banks of Switzerland, aid and abet criminals by providing safe havens that are immune to foreign government seizure. 

Although I liked this novel less than its predecessor, I enjoyed the introduction of the new character, the enigmatic Christopher Keller. 

The Confessor 

(Gabriel Allon Series #3)


A thought-proving novel revolving around the politics, cover-ups and dark secrets of the Vatican.           

The fires of history have been stoked and the result is violence and death....

A highly regarded Jewish college Professor is murdered in cold-blood. Owing to the Professor's ties to Israeli intelligence, Gabriel Allon is sent undercover to investigate his colleague's inexplicable death. He soon uncovers that it may have had something to do with a controversial manuscript the Professor had been working on regarding the complicit role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holocaust and persecution of Jews during World War II. If published, the damning document could irreparably tarnish the reputation of the Vatican. Adding to the woes of the Church, the newly appointed Pope has decided to "come clean" and open the Vatican Secret Archives and make available all the highly classified and damaging files pertaining to the Church’s involvement in the Jewish solution during the war. This threatens the Church's far right and they will stop at nothing to prevent the truth from surfacing even if it means murdering one of their own. 

In an ironic twist, the Israeli Intelligence Agency now finds itself desperately trying to protect the life of the Pope.    

An electrifying thriller with lots of twists and turns that keeps the reader hooked as well as a thought-provoking narrative. We are also introduced to a new female character, Chiara Zolli who is poised to be Gabriel's new love interest. 

A Death in Vienna 

(Gabriel Allon Series #4)


A masterful thriller revolving around "Aktion 1005", the real code name of the Nazi program to conceal evidence of the Holocaust by destroying the remains of millions of Jewish dead.

Books 2 to 4 in the Gabriel Allon series are based on WWII Nazi/Holocaust themes ranging from the persecution of Jews, theft and confiscation of Jewish owned valuables, and providing sanctuary to Nazi war criminals following the war. So even if you have started this series in random order, I'd recommend you read these three novels together. 

Israeli agent and old friend of Gabriel Allon, Eli Lavon has a near death experience in Vienna when a bomb goes off in his 'Wartime Claims and Inquiries' Office, instantly killing two of his employees. During Gabriel's investigation, a meeting with an elderly Holocaust survivor provides clues that a respected local businessman, Ludwig Vogel is in fact, a notorious Nazi war criminal named Erich Radek. Coincidentally, it turns out that Radek served as an SS Officer at the Birkenau death camp where Gabriel's mother Irene ended up during the war. His late mother's written testimony implicates Radek as a murderer and tormentor. Being a gifted artist herself, her haunting memories at Birkenau translated into artwork prominently featuring Radek. 

The suspicious death of the Holocaust survivor cements Gabriel's conviction of Radek's true identity and he surmises that the bombing and murder were to cover-up the truth given Vogel/Radek's political clout in Austria. Gabriel travels the globe trying to bring Radek to justice with an assassin hot on his tail.

The author has used true life events (such as the Birkenau Death March, and the efforts of Bishop Hudal to aid fleeing war criminals) and a fictional but believable account of a Holocaust survivor’s testimony to a chilling effect in this novel.

Prince of Fire 

(Gabriel Allon Series #5)


A knife-edge thriller of astonishing intricacy concerning the Israeli-Palestine conflict based on real people such as Black September mastermind Ali Hassan Salameh as well as Yasser Arafat.

Israeli super spy cum art restorer extraordinaire Gabriel Allon is called back into action (yet again) following a devastating truck bomb explosion outside the Israeli embassy in Rome. A computer disk extracted from the terrorists reveal that Gabriel's cover as the art restorer Mario Delvechhio has been blown and his personal details are known to his enemies putting him and Chiara in mortal peril. 

Under the able guidance of Ari Shamron, Gabriel has to lead a team of skilled operatives in the search for the mastermind but time is of the essence. As similar attacks have occurred elsewhere - a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and a main synagogue in Istanbul, Gabriel and his team realize that not only the manner of the attacks but the dates are of significance and a future attack is imminent. 

A profile of the suspect gradually emerges but until then, his very existence had been shrouded in myth. A man whose bloodline stemmed from the violent history between Palestinians and Israelis. A man whose ancestry can be traced back to the Black September Movement, one that Gabriel was directly part of. 

This novel focuses a bit more on Gabriel's personal life which I appreciated.

The Messenger 

(Gabriel Allon Series #6)

iThe plot for this fast-paced thriller takes the reader from an attempted assassination of the Pope by Al-Qaeda terrorists in the Vatican, to an attempt on former Israeli foreign intelligence chief in Jerusalem, to a dangerous operation to infiltrate a vast network of Jihad Incorporate across London, Paris and Switzerland.

An al-Qaeda operative is killed in London and evidence is found on his computer to suggest that al-Qaeda may be planning one of its most audacious attacks ever, aimed directly at the Vatican.

Unbeknown to Gabriel Allon, the Vatican has already been penetrated and a suicide bombing in Vatican city results in death and destruction. The Pope escapes with his life only due to Gabriel's timely arrival at the scene. As clues to the perpetrator's identity begin to unravel, there is an attempt on Gabriel's mentor, Ari Shamron's life leaving him grievously injured. 

In collaboration with the CIA, Gabriel has to infiltrate the heart of Jihad Incorporate, an organization run by a Saudi terrorist financier known as "Zizi" which has been linked to both the attacks. He recruits American art curator Sarah Bancroft to lay an elaborate trap for the renowned billionaire who has a weakness for Old Masters paintings. Sarah has a vested interest: vengeance against the architects of 9/11 who were responsible for the death of her fiancĂ©.  

Going undercover, Sarah offers herself up as bait in the hope that she will be able to identify Ahmed bin Shafiq, the mastermind behind the terrorist activities that are bankrolled by Zizi. When things go awry, Sarah awaits a bleak fate, and only Gabriel can save her. 

This novel is full of nail-biting suspense and international intrigue. The reason this novel stands out for me is the outstanding spycraft and the introduction of the wonderful Sarah Bancroft. 

The Secret Servant 

(Gabriel Allon Series #7)


A riveting espionage caper involving a terrorist plot in London that sends Israeli spy Gabriel Allon on a race against time to track down the kidnapped daughter of the American ambassador. With an unlikely terror mastermind behind the operation, the perilous rescue could cost Allon his life.

A Professor in Amsterdam who authored a book on Muslims and the Prophet is assassinated. Gabriel is sent on a seemingly routine mission to remove all traces of the Professor’s link to Israeli intelligence. But during the process, he gets tipped off about an Amsterdam-based terrorist cell planning the next big plot in London. 

Along with bombings, Elizabeth Halton, the daughter of the American ambassador in London is abducted. While attempting to rescue her, Gabriel inadvertently reveals his identity to the perpetrators which marks him as a target.

Aided by the CIA, Gabriel is drawn into a desperate search for the missing woman that will take him from Amsterdam to Germany to Denmark. Grappling with his conscience and having to deal with an unlikely alliance with a man who lost everything because of his beliefs, time is ticking for Gabriel. As the hour of the intended execution looms, Gabriel realizes it may be too late, not only for Halton but for himself as well.

The author highlights the rise of Islamic extremism across Europe and the continent's changing demographic. The novel is thought-provoking, the suspense pulsating which makes it an absorbing read. The ending will likely leave you breathless! 

The downside for me in this novel was the start of the character of Chiara becoming unlikeable. 

Moscow Rules 

(Gabriel Allon Series #8)


Set in Moscow where power resides once more behind the walls go the Kremlin, Gabriel Allon is up against a formidable antagonist, Ivan Kharkov. The wealthy and influential Russian oligarch has closed a deal to supply weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda. He must be stopped before it is too late....

The devious murder of an eminent journalist compels newly-wed Gabriel Allon to cut short his honeymoon in Italy and travel to Russia. The slain journalist had some vital information about new threats to the West and Israel that he was willing to entrust only to Gabriel. 

Landing in Moscow, Gabriel finds a city whose landscape has been altered from the dreary Soviet times to one overrun with capitalism. However, detractors of the new masters of the Kremlin are still being ruthlessly silenced and a new generation of Stalinists are gearing to challenge their old adversary, the United States. Gabriel realizes he now needs to play by a new set of rules because in Russia, one is never alone. 

At great personal risk, another Russian journalist tips him off about a former KGB agent named Ivan Kharkov who has built a criminal empire on the smoldering ruins of the Soviet Union. The journalist has received credible information that Kharkov is on the brink of delivering sophisticated weapons to al-Qaeda. 

The journalist's source is someone very close to Kharkov and if found out, she risks a fate worse than death. With the help of his team of operatives, Gabriel orchestrates a clandestine meeting with the informant in the guise of a clever art deal. If Gabriel has to stop the deadliest terror attack since 9/11, he has to find out the time and place of the delivery. But at the same time, he also needs to safeguard his vulnerable informant. 

The novel highlights the grave threat faced by journalists in Russia who are vocal critics of the regime and throws shade on Vladimir Putin's systematic crackdown on freedom of press. Close parallels have also been drawn to the Anna Politkovskaya case. 

With a breath-taking plot and edge of the seat entertainment, this is a story of international intrigue and espionage at its finest.

The Defector 

(Gabriel Allon Series #9)


Following right on the heels of its predecessor "Moscow rules", this novel pits Gabriel Allon against the ruthless Russian oligarch Ivan Kharkov. The mission to trace and bring back the one person who means most to Gabriel, takes him and his team across the cities of Europe and finally, a heart-stopping climax in the eerie snowbound birch forests of Russia. 

After the successful multinational intelligence operation against Russian arms dealer Ivan Kharkov, a former colonel in the FSB named Grigori Bulganov, who defected to Britain disappears without a trace from a busy street in London. The incident is troubling because "the defector" had aided Gabriel Allon and his team of Israeli operatives to flee Russian soil and escape Kharkov's clutches. Bulganov was also an important source of information to Western intelligence on the oligarch's arms-trafficking network. Gabriel stole Kharkov's secrets and helped his family to defect, leaving Kharkov to lick his wounds rendering him even more dangerous. 

When the abduction of Bulganov doesn't get Kharkov the reaction he is seeking, he targets someone who is indispensable to Gabriel. Kharkov is not only intelligent and shrewd but he is prone to extreme violence so for Gabriel, the stakes have never been higher. 

The sins of the Soviet past are brought up in passing references to the suffering that Stalin inflicted on Russia during the time of the Great Terror. The long mass graves serve as an example for Stalin's unimaginable crimes. There are echoes of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB officer and dissident defector who was murdered in London with a dose of radioactive polonium-210. The author makes no attempt to hide his disdain of Vladimir Putin's Russia. In fact, he uses this story as a cautionary tale to the world of Putin's intent to restore the old Russian-Soviet empire and destroy the postwar global order.

A fast-paced, remarkable and believable plot with heart-stopping but gratifying twists and turns, The Defector and Moscow Rules one would rank among my most favourite books of the series. 

Rembrandt Affair 

(Gabriel Allon Series #10)


Gabriel Allon’s hibernation into the cliffs of Cornwall is interrupted by the murder of an art restorer and theft of a long-lost portrait by Rembrandt. As Gabriel painstakingly follows a trail of clues leading from Europe to South America he uncovers the dark history of the painting. Complicating things is a powerful and greedy Swiss billionaire adversary to contend with. 

After narrowly escaping a terrifying ordeal in Russia, Gabriel and his wife Chiara have retreated to the windswept cliffs of Cornwall. But as always, their life of seclusion comes to a grinding halt when Gabriel is sought out by a friend, the affable London art dealer, Julian Isherwood with a desperate plea for help. If Gabriel doesn't solve the problem, his old friend faces certain financial ruin. 

In Glastonbury, an art restorer has been viciously murdered and a long-lost portrait by Rembrandt that he was working on stolen. Although reticent, Gabriel agrees to find the missing masterpiece. A copy of the provenance of 'Portrait of a Young Woman' reveals that the previous owners included a Jewish holocaust victim and a Nazi war criminal. Chasing the trail of clues from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires and, finally, to a villa on the placid shores of Lake Geneva, Gabriel discovers the many horrors lurking behind the painting.  

With the help of an elusive master art thief who is burdened by a conscience and a well-known London journalist who is determined to correct a personal blunder, Gabriel hatches a scheme to dig up dirt on a shady Swiss billionaire named Martin Landesmann. Despite his good deeds in public, this philanthropist could be hiding sinister secrets capable of having global consequences. 

In a break from the previous novels, the author delves into the topic of art theft and its impact on the art world. The reader is given an insight into the art of restora­tion, the his­tor­i­cal con­texts of the sto­ry, and certain cur­rent events. The first half is a bit slow but it picks up in the second half. I liked the conclusion which was both unpredictable and pragmatic. 

Filled with interesting twists and turns of plot, and told with rich prose, The Rembrandt Affair is an entertaining affair indeed!

Portrait of a Spy 

(Gabriel Allon Series #11)


Set against the disparate worlds of art and intelligence, the novel  takes on the new face of global terror. At the crux of it is a cleric from Yemen with a sharp mind and seductive tongue. The plot moves swiftly from the hi-tech  surveillance rooms of Washington to the glamorous auction houses of New York and London to the hostile terrain of the Saudi desert.

Gabriel Allon and his wife Chiara have nestled into a quiet life in a small English community. But when Gabriel's razor-sharp spy instincts leads him to witness a suicide bombing at Covent Garden, he gets embroiled in a dangerous game of counterterrorism against a charismatic American-born cleric in Yemen. Having once a paid CIA asset, deception comes naturally to this mastermind and a new wave of terror attacks is imminent. 

Gabriel and his team need to infiltrate the terror network from the inside but for that, he needs help. He reaches out to at expert Sarah Bancroft and investigative reporter Zoe Reed to forge an unlikely alliance with the daughter of a former enemy. 

Nadia al-Bakari has evolved from a temperamental and petulant dependent to a successful and influential businesswoman. Although she rebels against Islamic norms by shunning the veil and consuming alcohol, she still manages to navigate the customs of her faith in a manner acceptable to her society. She is not only a philanthropist but also secretly champions woman empowerment in the Islamic world. Only the reclusive Saudi heiress can traverse the murky divide between the Jihadists and the West. But for that, she needs to be able to forgive Gabriel and he needs to be able to trust her. 

The antagonist in this novel is based on al-Qaeda cleric and recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki and draws parallels to his background, connection to 9/11 and journey from moderation to radicalism. The novel also throws light on the history of Wahhabism, Saudi domination of the global oil market, the rise and fall of Dubai, its deplorable treatment of its massive foreign workforce and the role of financial intelligence in the war on terror. 

The first half of the novel is slow but it picks up the pace after Nadia enters the picture and maintains a steady momentum still the end. Although the climax was impactful and haunting, I did not feel like it was credible. 

Fallen Angel 

(Gabriel Allon Series #12)


A young museum curator is found dead at the base of St Peter's Basilica under mysterious circumstances - a fallen angel. At the behest of the Holy Father, Gabriel Allon, the wayward son of Israeli intelligence, must uncover the secrets hidden within the depths of the global criminal antiquities trade and sever its unsolicited link to the Vatican. 

The massive toll that the last operation took on him leads Gabriel to turn to art restoration to get away from the world of espionage. But while restoring one of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces, he is requested by Luigi Donati, private secretary to the pope to covertly investigate a death that has occurred at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

A curator from the antiquities division seems to have either fallen or jumped from a great height but looking closely at the corpse, Gabriel's sharp mind and well-trained eye says otherwise. The young woman had been involved in a secret investigation at the behest of the Holy Father regarding the provenance of the great treasures of antiquity in the Vatican museum collection. 

During the course of his investigation, Gabriel uncovers a multi-layered conspiracy involving a successful Italian businessman who secretly operates a criminal network that is funding the terrorist network Hezbollah. The businessman also just happens to  be on the board of the Vatican bank. On top of that, there is a more sinister plot instigated by an Iranian terror that can threaten the very existence of Gabriel's beloved homeland. 

The action that begins in Rome, takes Gabriel to Berlin, Vienna and culminates in a nerve-wracking climax beneath the world’s most sacred and contested parcel of land in Jerusalem.

This novel gives some historical perspective on the origins of the Temple Mount. It also reminds the reader of the unfortunate reality of the phenomenon of Holocaust Denial along with Temple Denial in the Islamic world. 

In this novel, I felt like the story didn't flow as well as some of the previous novels in the series and the ending felt a bit choppy but I enjoyed it nonetheless and found it illuminating. 

The English Girl 

(Gabriel Allon Series #13)


An old friend from the depths of Gabriel’s tangled past has requested a favour to avert an embarrassing political scandal. But the task of recovering a missing rising player in Britain's governing party gradually snowballs into a larger Kremlin stratagem to turn Russia into a global energy superpower and to resurrect the Russian Empire from the ruins of the Soviet Union.

A young English woman vanishes without a trace from the picturesque island of Corsica. With her television good looks, keen intellect and boundless energy, Madeline Hart was being groomed for a safe seat in Parliament and a ministry of her own. What could have possibly happened to the 27-year old budding star who was well on her way to a bright future? 

Behind the composed exterior, Madeline had been harboring an explosive secret. She had been in an illicit relationship with the Prime Minister of England and someone had gotten word of it. Madeline's abduction is subsequently used to blackmail the Prime Minister and in order to avoid a public scandal, he calls in a favour which brings Gabriel into the picture. Israel's spy extraordinaire has only a few days to find the missing young woman before the kidnappers send her to her grave. 

Along with an unlikely ally, Gabriel's mission takes him to idyllic Corsica to the criminal underworld of Marseilles to a secluded valley in the mountains of Provence through the political turmoil in London and, finally, to a heart-stopping climax in the city of heretics, Moscow. 

This novel is suspenseful and absorbing. The true motives behind Madeleine's disappearance is outright shocking and the ending is unexpected. The character sketches of existing and returning characters are simply delightful! 

The Heist 

(Gabriel Allon Series #14)

The gruesome murder of a former spy turned art thief draws out Israel's legendary Gabriel Allon to recover a priceless missing Caravaggio. A master art thief, a Corsican assassin, an Israeli expert on Syria, a Russian billionaire and a child of Hama are the menagerie of characters that Gabriel needs to uncover the billions in looted assets tucked away by the feared Butcher of Damascus. 

Gabriel’s long-time friend Julian Isherwood finds himself in a spot of trouble when he calls on an art dealer to collect a painting only to find a dead body at the scene. If Gabriel does not find the real killer, the murder will be pinned on Isherwood. 

Gabriel soon discovers that the victim was a former British spy turned art thief and one of the stolen works, now missing, is Caravaggio’s famous Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. To track down the masterpiece, Gabriel has to devise an elaborate art scam by borrowing an original Van Gogh, making a credible forgery and putting it on the black market. Then it is a matter of waiting for the big player to make his move. 

Travelling through some of the most picturesque locales in Europe assisted by his team, other intelligence services, former foes turned friends and a new recruit, he pursues the trail of money left by the stolen artwork. His search leads him to a private bank in Austria where a dangerous man watches over the misbegotten fortune of a ruthless Middle Eastern tyrant.

Through a fictional account of a survivor, the book delves into the Hama uprising of 1982, when the Syrian Army under the order's of Syria's president Hafez al-Assad, besieged the town of Hama for 27 days in order to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against al-Assad's government.

Contrary to the title, I'd say the novel is more of a serious political thriller rather than an intriguing art heist. This book entwines real-world issues with a fictional plot, familiar characters and a new strong female character. The exotic locales aid in enhancing the story. 

The first half of the novel is slow but picks up in the second half. I liked that the character of Bella has been given more depth but disappointed that Keller has been underused in this novel. Another downside for me was the ending which did not come across as believable. 

The English Spy 

(Gabriel Allon Series #15)


An English princess is holidaying on her yacht when it is blown-up. British intelligence pursue Gabriel Allon to hunt for the killer leading to the pursuit of an IRA associate and expert bomb maker. With the help of an ally turned MI6 spy, Gabriel has to catch a Russian hood, bypass a dangerous assassin and enter uncharted hostile Irish territory before he can end the trail of destruction and death. 

Gabriel is on the threshold of becoming chief of Israeli intelligence thereby fulfilling his mentor, Ari Shamron's long-awaited desire. He is also geared up to welcome fatherhood for the second time (after his first-born perished in an explosion several years ago). 

But when a beloved English princess is killed aboard her yacht by a bomb planted by an assassin named Eamon Quinn linked to the IRA, Gabriel is called in to team up with former SAS commando turned recent MI6 recruit Christopher Keller to solve the murder for hire. Quinn is dangerous having previously worked for Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and Iranian intelligence. But Gabriel and Christopher have a more personal reason to take on this assignment. Quinn happened to be at a terrorist training camp in Libya alongside the man who had destroyed Gabriel's life years ago and he made the car bomb that killed Gabriel's son and put his first wife in a psychiatric facility. He was also responsible for the death of Christopher's lover. It is now time to settle old scores. 

The action moves at a rapid pace advancing through London, Portugal, Moscow, Corsica, Ireland, Northern Ireland, to remote Cornwall. Despite their best efforts, the elusive Quinn and his accomplice always seem to be a step ahead of them. 

The first chapter was incredibly compelling. I loved that even though this novel is largely about the IRA, the story never got boring. It serves as a great history lesson in British and Irish geopolitics. The acts of terrorism carried out by the Real IRA are described in chilling detail. The event of the bombing of the market town of Omagh has been rendered accurately with some creative literary license. 

The English Spy is fast paced, hard to put down and beyond reproach. The highlight for me was the bromance between Gabriel & Christopher - those two sure make a dream team! 

Spellbinding & imaginative!

The Black Widow 

(Gabriel Allon Series #16)


Innocent blood is spilled in Paris and Amsterdam. A mysterious new player in global terror has emerged. The mastermind is a man of history and grandiose ambition who envisions using mass murder as a means of unifying the Arab and Islamic world under the black flag of ISIS and the caliphate. But to track him down, Gabriel needs to send an undercover agent into the dark underbelly of ISIS - a "black widow". 

A powerful bomb flattens a Jewish target in the middle of Paris. One of the victims had assisted Israeli intelligence during a previous operation. The perpetrators are none other than terrorist organization ISIS. The Fresh officials manipulate the Israelis into sending their avenging archangel Gabriel Allon to track down and neutralize the mastermind. The shadowy figure who only goes by the code name Saladin, is difficult to trace because nobody knows what he looks like, what nationality he belongs to or even his real name. 

The devastating Paris bombing is soon followed by another one in Amsterdam. To trace Saladin, Gabriel must recruit an agent - in this case, a young Jewish doctor who is fluent in French and Arabic and send her into the vipers nest. Natalie Mizrahi must take on a brand new identity, that of a Palestinian radical as well as vengeful fiancĂ©e of a ISIS martyr. 

Gabriel joins forces with with intelligence agencies from France, Jordan and the U.S to infiltrate ISIS, prevent a catastrophic attack on North American soil and also recover his invaluable agent.

In this novel, the author draws attention to the rising anti-Semitism in France, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, the roots and explosive growth of ISIS and the appeal of the caliphate to Western youth for recruitment. He emphasizes how the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created the seedbed from which ISIS sprang. The author's disdain of former US President Barack Obama is quite apparent by references to the failure to leave a residual American force in Iraq in 2011 combined with Syrian civil war that allowed a malignant ISIS to spread unchecked. 

The recruitment and intensive training of Natalie Mizrahi is compelling. Natalie is a wonderful new character - strong and courageous. The way Natalie is indoctrinated with her jihadist persona is harrowing and her experience in Syria, even more so.  The novel is good introduction to the rise of ISIS and the turmoil in Syria. I disliked the bleak ending even though it was pragmatic.  

Chillingly prescient, unnerving and riveting, The Black Widow is also one of my favourites from the series. 

House of Spies 

(Gabriel Allon Series #17)


The novel picks up from the previous novel. The shadowy “Saladin”, operational mastermind of the ISIS terror attacks on American soil has now unleashed his reign of terror in Europe. Along with the unrelenting attacks, evidence surfaces of ISIS acquiring ingredients for a radioactive bomb. 

It has been four months since the devastating terror attack on American soil. Julian Isherwood is being stood up by a dinner date at London's glittering West End when it becomes the next target of a suicide bombing. Isherwood emerges unscathed and even manages to save many lives but hundreds are not as lucky. The carnage is the handiwork of none other than global terror mastermind Saladin and he has set his sights on Paris next. Gabriel Allon, now chief of Israeli intelligence is visiting French intelligence when the building is bombed causing him serious injuries, massive destruction of property and a few casualties. This makes the attack personal and pulls Gabriel away from his desk and into the field. 

Following the trail of clues from one of the bombers leads him to a Moroccan national who is a weapons dealer. Suspicion soon falls on prominent French businessman cum drug kingpin named Jean-Luc Martel and his girlfriend, former British model Olivia Watson. Gabriel must set-up an elaborate deception to ensnare the couple to get to Saladin. For this, he turns to Natalie Mizrahi, Mikhail Abramov and Christopher Keller as willing accomplices. The team must penetrate the world of ISIS and illicit narcotics mainly North Africa’s lucrative hashish trade. Together, the American, British and French intelligence services must come together to prevent another impending attack….one that will be far more devastating than the rest. 

This novel is fictionalized but realistic take on the nexus between crime and radical Islam challenging the U.S. and Western Europe. 

Although it does not pack the same punch as The Black Widow, this is a good sequel and ties up the loose ends nicely. 

The Other Woman 

Gabriel Allon Series #18


A mole has been inserted into the heart of Western intelligence - someone who swears allegiance to one of Russia's former top spies in Britain. A manhunt for the mole results in a cascade of events setting Gabriel Allon on a collision course with Russia, a country he has a troubled history with. To fill in the blanks, Gabriel must seek out an elderly woman living in Spain who has in her possession an explosive memoir.

The story opens in Vienna, a city that is filled with the ghosts of Gabriel Allon's past. His team is in the process of bringing in a defecting Russian spy who is their most important asset inside the SVR (Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service). Only the top officers of Israeli and British intelligence are in on the plan. But before Gabriel can make contact, the spy is assassinated and the murder staged to make it appear as though the Israelis are responsible. Caught in the ensuing international firestorm that threatens his hold on the Office, Gabriel has no choice but to embark on an investigation into the fiasco. He deduces that the Russians not only were aware that the spy was going to defect but they knew exactly when and where. The inquiry leads him to the door of his old friend Graham Seymour, chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Gabriel has some troubling news for his old friend - that MI6 is harboring a double agent who works in the interests of Russia. 

Concurrently, in a secluded mountain village in Spain, a furtive old French woman secretly pens a memoir about an Englishman she once loved in Old Beirut and a child taken from her in treason’s name.

Gabriel and his team uncovers that the Englishman in question was not only a top ranking official in British intelligence but also served as a legendary secret spy for Moscow center. The one who prepared and helped the SVR insert a mole into the heart of Western Intelligence, an agent motivated by an unwavering personal devotion to him. 

The novel is a factionalized take on the actions of real-life British intelligence agent Kim Philby, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963 and lived out the rest of his life there as a hero. 

This is not the typical edge-of-the-seat thriller that you would expect from Daniel Silva but I enjoyed revisiting those chapters of espionage history. The way the author has weaved fiction into real life events in a grimly realistic manner is admirable. I found the conclusion slightly disappointing. 

The New Girl 

Gabriel Allon Series #19


A student from an exclusive private school in Switzerland has been kidnapped. The ransom demand is that her father, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, abdicate his claim to the throne. Gabriel Allon is approached to find the missing girl. The rescue operation soon uncovers an elaborate conspiracy to change Saudi's line of succession and alter the political landscape of the Middle East. 

The identity of a beautiful young girl studying in an exclusive private school in Switzerland is shrouded in mystery. Her attire is expensive and sophisticated, her demeanor is regal and her security detail can match any head of state. When the girl is kidnapped, her identity is revealed to be Princess Reema of Saudi Arabia, the only child of Crown Prince Khalid bin Mohammad (KLM). The ransom demand is for the Prince to give up his claim to the throne - a demand that is impossible to meet. 

Surrounded by enemies and no friends to turn to, KLM reaches out to mutual acquaintance, art curator Sarah Bancroft in order to relay a message to the Chief of Israeli Intelligence, Gabriel Allon. The distraught prince seeks help in recovering his daughter and to keep him from having to relinquish his ascension as the next King of Saudi Arabia. Gabriel sees that this unlikely alliance could work in his country's interests as KLM is the only hope to sever the ties between his Kingdom and radical Islam. 

With the life of an innocent child and the fate of a wealthy Kingdom hanging in the balance, Gabriel has to navigate political alliances and great power rivalries to get to a formidable old adversary, who is pulling the strings.  

Silva blends in fictionalized versions of actual recent events. The novel is loosely based on the power behind the Saudi throne, Mohammad bin Salman. Initially thought to be a reformer and a means to curb the Kingdom's support for Islamic zealotry and terrorism, doubts soon emerged if the tempestuous royal would turn out to be a mere power-mad desert sheikh who ruthlessly silences his critics and enriches himself at the public trough. 

There are several references to the grisly murder and dismemberment of Jamal Kashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist and columnist for the Washington Post which was carried out inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. 

I did like where the author was going with this novel and I enjoyed the return of Sarah Bancroft and Christopher Keller. But for me, this one did not meet the expectations when compared to the rest of the series because I did not like the meandering storyline, a few plot holes and the unexplained fate of the antagonist. 

The Order 

Gabriel Allon Series #20


The death of the Pope cloaked under a shroud of mysterious circumstances and the rediscovery of a lost Gospel that sheds new light on Christian anti-Semitism is at the crux of this thought-provoking thriller. 

The Vatican, one of the world's last absolute monarchies and a divine dictatorship sets the stage for Daniel Silva’s latest offering. 

Pope Paul VII has been found dead and Archbishop Donati suspecting foul play, summons Gabriel Allon to undertake an informal investigation. Before his untimely demise, the Pope had been writing a letter to Gabriel about a book he found in Vatican's Secret Archives. A book purportedly based on the memoirs of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate who sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. This highly controversial account calls into question the accuracy of the New Testament’s depiction of one of the most portentous events in human history. One which formed the seedbed of two thousand years of unending anti-Semitism. 

While a conclave is underway to choose the next Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Gabriel discovers that several cardinal-electors have accepted bribes from the Order of Helena, a clandestine Neo-Nazi organization to cast their votes for its puppet. A rigged conclave would result in the papacy falling in the hands of this malignant and reactionary Catholic society with ties to Europe’s far right. 

Gabriel’s search for the truth leads him to Florence where he witnesses the cold-blooded murder of a missing Swiss Guard, to a cottage outside Fribourg where an unfinished letter lies unclaimed, to a monastery in Assisi where history is revisited, to an unexpected encounter in the Secret Archives of the Vatican and finally to the Sistine Chapel where an unprecedented event occurs...

This novel spins interesting fiction but it seems too far-fetched at times. The supernatural element doesn't really tie in with the rest of the series that is so grounded in reality. I sorely missed Silva’s trademark spycraft which typically makes for exciting reading. And I also admit that I missed Christopher Keller. As one of my favourite characters in the series, I enjoy reading about his escapades with Gabriel. 


Series Review

Let's begin with the positives (which are an overwhelming majority). Throughout the series, Daniel Silva showcases his outstanding skill and brilliant imagination. He imbues his novels with rich history (mostly from the Middle East and Europe). Entwined in this enthralling history is a slick plot, spectacular spy craft and in most cases, enlightening descriptions of art restoration. The author is also equally adept at incorporating contemporary events into his novels. Indeed, some of his plots are timely, and echo the cultural, political, and military realities of the present day. The author started off the series alluding to prominent historical events like Black September, the Holocaust and its aftermath but in his latest few works, he has turned to current world affairs like the rise of new Russia and threats of global terrorism. The amount of research that has gone into each novel is remarkable. When I found reviewing this series so difficult, I cannot fathom the amount of time and effort that the author has spent to create it! 

Given his political background, Daniel Silva paints an intricate picture of the Israeli-Arab conflict. I appreciate that he does not hesitate to take on sensitive subjects like religion and debatable global politics. Although both sides are allowed to air their grievances, it isn't hard to see that the author is straight up pro-Israeli. Keep in mind that if you are less sympathetic to the Zionist cause, you may not always agree with his reasoning. 

Aside from the absorbing spy tradecraft and great action, Daniel Silva's writing is very accomplished with impeccable grammar, structuring of sentences and dialogue. He knows how to grab the attention of the reader with unpredictable and breathtaking plot twists and turns. 

More importantly, the author has managed to create a host of fascinating and memorable characters. He draws his villains as masterfully as he does his heroes and heroines. The backstories of all the characters are captivating and he makes his characters seem very real and wholesome. 

But the author's greatest accomplishment has undoubtedly been to make each book of the series unique and engaging. It is the mark of a good author when his readers count the days till they can get their hands on his/her next novel!

Although I don't think it is fair to brand the series formulaic, there is a certain pattern to several of the books that one cannot deny. It usually starts with a reluctant Gabriel being coerced (mostly by Shamron) into taking up a seemingly routine assignment. Soon, one thing leads to another and a major conspiracy or impending terrorist attack is unearthed. Next, mind-boggling spy craft comes into play involving the ensemble of supporting characters. More often than not, there is a beautiful and brave young woman being used as bait in a dangerous game. A perfect operation is formulated but something goes terribly wrong towards the end and it is up to Gabriel to save the day. It usually ends up with him having to experience some kind of mental and physical trauma. Having said that, I bring this up only as a general observation and not a complaint. Each novel is different and brings something new to the table so if the above pattern can be called a "formula" then it totally works for me! 

Now coming to my negatives - one aspect of the series you cannot ignore is the repetition in each novel. I understand that this is necessary to keep a reader abreast of the happenings in the event that they start the series in random order. Several key phrases are copied directly out of previous novels in the series - particularly the descriptions of people and some of the history. Whether it is Chiara's riotous curls fastened with a clasp at the nape of her neck, Eli Lavon's magical ability of disappearing while shaking your hand or Shamron's bomber jacket with a tear on the right breast (among several others). For a reader like me who started the series in order, by the time I got to the tenth novel, I was a little tired of reading it over and over again. And is it just the foodie/food blogger just me that wonders why fettuccine with mushrooms is the only dish that Chiara cooks! 

There are also some troubling generalizations. For instance, the women are all physically attractive. There isn't a single one who appears in the series who isn't. And a significant percentage of them are attracted to Gabriel despite the glaring age difference, his frequently worn out appearance, his reclusive demeanor and the fact that the women have much better prospects. 

Also, I'd like to point out that many titles in the series sound familiar (The English Assassin, The English Girl, The English Spy, The Unlikely Spy) and hence may be confusing to the reader. 

Moving on to the characters, a review of this series cannot  be completed without talking about the characters especially since there has been enough time and opportunity for their growth, development and evolution. 

I'm starting my line-up of favourite characters with the obvious, Gabriel Allon. The author has created a complex but brilliant hero, a clinically shy and somewhat reluctant protagonist who is ruthless when needed and brave to a fault, yet vulnerable, honorable and empathetic. Gabriel Allon has never been a one-dimensional character. There are multiple layers to his personality that have been influenced by his blood-soaked ancestry, his melancholic childhood, his profound life experiences often dogged by tragedy and the innumerable ghosts of his past. This makes his character fascinating. He is multilinguistic, an intellectual, a patriot, a world-class art restorer, a cold-blooded assassin, a team leader and a fiercely protective family man all rolled into one. While on one side he destroys, on the other he restores. He has a profound compulsion to not just restore priceless works or art but also restore damaged or broken people and make them whole again. His own personal restoration has been the highlight of the series. Without remarkable looks, charm or the gift of the gab to his credit, he is no James Bond but you will grow to understand that he is so much more! 

I love the charming Julian Isherwood for injecting some lightness and humor even during serious situations. The electric Christopher Keller initially appeared in the second book but once he was re-introduced much later on, I looked forward to unearthing more of his enigmatic personality and interactions with other characters. Speaking of Keller, someone I always looked forward to reading about was the Corsican mystic Signadora. I relished her sibylline predictions and snippets of interaction with Keller. Of all Gabriel's "Office" team members, the brilliant and intuitive Dina Sarid makes it to the top of my list of best characters followed closely by the steely and inscrutable Mikhail Abramov. CIA's unpretentious and level-headed Adrian Carter is my favourite of all the allied intelligence chiefs. And after featuring in several novels, I came to appreciate the growing camaraderie between Gabriel, Luigi Donati and the Pope. Then there is Sarah Bancroft who in my opinion, is one of the most likeable female characters in the series. Plucky, sensible and relatable, Sarah comes in like a breath of fresh air. Towards the end of the series there is Natalie Mizrahi who also made a great impression on me with her work ethic, quiet dignity and courage. And even though she appeared only in one novel, I really liked the character of French supermodel Jacqueline Delacroix. I was disappointed that the author packed her off into the sunset without so much as a whisper of her for the rest of the series. I personally thought she deserved better. Chiara Zolli who was initially introduced as feisty, sharp and resourceful Office field operative with a lot of promise gradually morphs into this domineering, nagging and needy partner relegated to nothing more than a prop mid-way through the series. Too much importance is placed on her physical attributes and there is a lot lacking in terms of personality development. Mostly she is seen as a liability or the one holding Gabriel back. However, towards the end of the series, flickers of the old Chiara finally start to emerge and she manages to re-establish her own identity. Although I'd like to give full credit to the author for writing strong, courageous and inspirational female characters, I am a bit disappointed that he made this pivotal character shallow and somewhat unlikeable.

Among the antagonists it would be a tough choice between Ivan Kharkov and Saladin. Both of them have well-etched personalities and backstories. Both of them are shrewd, ruthless, intelligent and menacing making them great villains and worthy adversaries to Gabriel Allon. 

With that, I wrap up this very lengthy review. Congratulations if you made it this far!

I am SO glad I read this entire series. It has been the most wonderful use of my free time these past 10 months. In these troubled and uncertain Covid-19 times, this series took me to a different world which not only provided thrills and entertainment but also imparted knowledge and perspective.  

I am not surprised that Daniel Silva is widely regarded as one of the finest and most compelling novelists in the International intrigue/espionage genre in modern fiction. If you happen to love this genre, you just HAVE to read this series! And a word of advice - do read the books in the right sequence. It definitely makes a difference! 

Highly recommended! 👍


No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think of this post? You can leave a message to let me know. Thanks!

Please note that I reserve the right to delete any comments that I deem inappropriate, offensive, spam or self-advertising. I appreciate your understanding in this matter.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...