Which brings me to ROCK PAPER TIGER, by Lisa Brackmann. Run-don't-walk to wherever you get your books, and get two: one to keep, one to give to the person you talk with late at night about big ideas that you're not sure you've got fully fleshed out yet. You'll be moving in parallel with Ellie Cooper, better known in China as Yili, a more pronounceable set of sounds there. Ellie has rage -- understandable rage, considering what she's been through with her husband Trey, both in Iraq ("the sandbox") and afterward. Limping, getting through constant pain with a handful of Percocet and a steady alcohol diet, and unwilling to give way, give up, or anything else tame and soft, she's running so hard already that when the security forces from at least two countries -- China and America -- start chasing her, she barely has room to accelerate.
Already, you can see this isn't a "typical" mystery or crime book or espionage effort. It's a compelling and exciting adventure, one that tangles the cyber possibilities of William Gibson's Neuromancer with the gaming ones of Orson Scott Card's Ender series, along with a strong female version of what John Le Carré summoned up about the two sides of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the cost of loyalty. Only this time, the wall is the Great Wall of China, the war is for information, and the cost -- oh yes, it's still the cost of loyalty: to your friends, if you can figure out who they are. Here's a morsel of how Ellie's facing this:
"Yili," John says. "I think you are feeling better now?"(Don't let her fool you -- Yili might still manage to follow through on some of those ideas of hers.)
I have two equally strong reactions: I want to run like hell away from this freak, and I want to claw his eyes out, punch him in the jaw, kick him in the nuts. Which isn't really realistic. But neither is running, because I don't run that well, and this section of the Great Wall is so steep I'd probably break my neck trying.
So I don't do anything. I just stand there.
"You look much better now," John continues. "I was worried about you that night."
I have to give the guy credit for his brass balls, because he's wearing his most innocent expression, and I'm sure if I accuse him of anything, he'll do that squinty-eyed, puzzled look he has down to a Kabuki act.
By now, if you've been reading Asian-themed mysteries, you're thinking about Martin Limón's Korean DMZ, gendered the other way; and maybe also about S. J. Rozan's Lydia Chin. Good thoughts. It will come as no surprise that the publisher for Brackmann's book (her first, by the way) is Soho, where the team seems especially alert to adventure that pulls together vastly differing cultures, as well as fast-moving plots and memorable characters. Way to go, team!
Yili's messed-up marriage, her guilt from Iraq, her saccharinely Christian mom, and her politically vocal arts-world acquaintances make a heady mix ready to explode. The spark is an evening when her cell phone runs out of minutes, so she fails to warn her artist friend Lao Zhang that she's about to arrive at his place. As a result, she meets someone who may be a subversive. And within hours, she's in too deep to get out -- now, fighting for her life and discovering what she believes in are really the only choices left for her.
Brackmann's next thriller, still in progress, is set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Consider me a fan already.