".... It matters not who sends us—the team is what matters. That is the only thing that does, in this chaos."
Shadow Strike is a team of five special operatives who do the dirty work for the CIA. Led by the former mercenary David Rivers, their job is to assassinate the entities that pose security risks to their country. This time they are in Belgrade, Serbia, to locate and annihilate Sidorov, a powerful Russian arms dealer, in possibly their most simple and straight-forward mission. But soon chaos reigns when one of them is shot and their handler is murdered. Hunted by the local mafia, police, and mercenaries who work for an international kingpin, the only way for the outnumbered gang to survive the onslaught lies in working together as a team and fighting back.
The Belgrade Conspiracy is a return to familiar territory for me. For some time, I was only reading literary fiction and non-fiction books, and the plot of this book about arms deals, international espionage, and mercenaries was like eating my comfort food after a long gap. This is the kind of book written by Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, and Frederick Forsyth that I used to consume non-stop some years ago.
The author, Jason Kasper, used to be a veteran in the US Army with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He makes use of this background effectively in the novel. The Belgrade Conspiracy is his sixth novel in the Shadow Strike series and the first one that I read. I received an advanced ebook copy through Netgalley and its publisher, Severn River, in exchange for honest feedback.
The book starts by plunging us directly into the middle of action when David and his team ambush a safe house of Serbian mafia members and wipe them all out in a tactical move. Throughout the course of the book, the writer refuses to let us out of the frame of mind set by this opening. He takes care not to let a moment of relief escape in between the pages and progressively tightens the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that his protagonist has to overcome to accomplish his mission. The action is very violent and bloody, with too many shots being fired and a huge body count.
One great asset of Kasper's story-telling is the clarity of it all. Unlike many other novels, you are able to properly envision all the details of the action in full glory. I have never been so coherent about the geography of shootouts in a novel. The strategies, armaments, and roles of each team member are pretty lucid and play out in our minds like a good action movie while reading the book. Those readers who are crazy about weaponry will love the detailed descriptions of different arms portrayed in the novel.
I've never read another novel that makes its reader beg for exposition. The writer has planned out the action in such a way that for most of the novel, we are clueless about the final target of the mission. We are served a few bits and pieces along the way, and that only serves to build up the curiosity element. For this reason, when the inevitable exposition dump hits us, we never feel bogged down by it like in many other such thrillers.
Other than its action, the novel focuses on the camaraderie between the five members and their Serbian guide. Though we never get a character sketch of any of them at the outset (maybe already done in the previous books), we should be able to stitch it together along the way. Even though the writer attempts only broad caricatures through the sparse description, their friendly banter and acts of support towards each other make it possible. The willingness of everyone in the team to always go the extra mile for the other one makes them overcome even insurmountable obstacles on their way.
The lack of a good antagonist is one area where the book falters a bit. Major antagonists just appear with only a name, and we never find out anything about them. Most of the opponents end up being canon fodder for the guns of the Shadow Strike Force and for the plot. Another issue that I faced while reading the novel was the sudden change of point of view. Some portions are narrated from the first-person POV of David, and other parts employ a third-person narrative. In one crucial part of the plot, it makes sense to use such a gimmick, though from a larger perspective, it doesn't bring anything substantial to the table as far as the reading experience is concerned.
The Belgrade Conspiracy by Jason Kasper will definitely appeal to readers who love to read tautly composed action thrillers. When you come across a sentence about someone shooting another, and if it makes you enquire about the make of the gun, its range, and the calibre of the bullet, this book is for you.