Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Book Review: The Mercenary of Urga by Jonathan Harries

First World War is over. Leon Harries, an assassin who is latest in the lineage of two thousand year old sica wielding professional killers, now works as a British agent of SIS. His new mission is to prevent a political scandal by finding the whereabouts of thousands of lost minor British youngsters who had signed up for war in search of adventure and have now gone missing. Leon embarks on a chaotic journey from London that culminate in Mongolia, surviving severe cold, scheming billionaires, double crossing aides and brutal law enforcers for the final battle against the Bloody Baron. 

The Mercenary of Urga is a historical novel written by Jonathan Harries as the fifth installment of his series Tales From Sica. I haven't read any of the previous books yet and have received this one from Netgalley in exchange of an honest review. I faced no trouble in reading this one as a standalone book. There are many references thrown around in it about the occurrences in the books before it. But these have only very minimal impact on the plot. I found the novel to be a peculiar case because it refuses to conform to a particular mould. 

The book is basically a historical novel. Almost all the characters except the protagonist and a few others are actual persons and many events depicted in the plot are actual ones. Author has used a humorous approach for narrating the story. The tone is varying- you find lot of sarcastic talk, satire, use of irony, some slapstick and some situational humor, all thrown in. But the wit in narration never dilute the thrill or suspense of the plot. The author retains the gravity of the situation wherever required and it never becomes a parody of the spy genre. 

Many historical figures appear as characters in the novel. From politicians like Churchil, to industrialists like Henry Ford, from Charlie Chaplin to Marcel Proust, we encounter famous celebrities from all walks of life in these pages. They all play caricatures of themselves by appearing as larger than life and with pronounced mannerisms. At the same time it doesn't affect the serious strain of the plot. It was one great experience that the book provided. 

I loved the protagonist of this novel. It is evident that Leon is modelled loosely on James Bond. He is an SIS operative and an efficient killing machine. His boss C, mentions about plans of starting a special division of agents with a license to kill, which is also a Bond reference. Another give away is the many allusions in the novel about his 'skills with knife (sica) as well as betwixt the sheets'. 

But the personality of Leon is more comical. He does silly mistakes and escapes many times by just sheer luck. He also has a good presence of mind that helps him in situations where he is at total loss. His vanity reminded me of a character of Arthur Conan Doyle called Brigadier Gerard, who is a brave, but vain soldier claiming to have done personal assignments for Napoleon. 

Narrator of the story is the present day keeper of the assassin tradition of the family. He has been narrating his family history in the previous books. His portions- epilogue and post script, are narrated in first person and Leon's diary is narrated in third person. Honestly, I feel that hearing the story in Leon's first person vision, would be still more effective, because he is a complex character and a perspective from him would have added layers to the narration. 

Overall, The Mercenary of Urga is an interesting historical fiction, with appearances of many historical persons and events, told in a humorous language without becoming silly. 

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