Sunday, December 27, 2015

India, Tibet, Terrorism, in THE RATABAN BETRAYAL, Stephen Alter

It took almost three years for this Himalayan thriller to cross the Atlantic -- and it didn't even require translation. I'm not asking what happened. I'm just glad THE RATABAN BETRAYAL is finally releasing on January 5, 2016, in the United States. It erupted in Europe and even India in 2013, and probably stirred up reaction especially in author Stephen Alter's hometown, Mussoorie, India, where the thriller's action mostly takes place.

I particularly wanted to read THE RATABAN BETRAYAL because it has a blurb from Eliot Pattison, whose Chinese-occupied Tibet fiction (Inspector Shan series) is always high on my must-read list. But where Pattison's series is thoughtful and often mystical in its probing of Tibet "then and now," Alter's thriller rides with special ops teams and multinational espionage along one of the most dangerous border zones of the world: the region where India and China clash.

Action coalesces around one oldtime espionage master, Colonel Afridi, whose center of operations is in Mussorie, a "hill town" created during British rule of India and now a tourist location where agents of both the CIA and India's Research and Analysis Wing, RAW, cross paths and compete for information and survival. Alter propels two couples into the maelstrom of crisis around Afridi, although takes a while to sort out who's working for whom, and why.

Here's a sample from mid book:
Afridi was staring at her intently.

"That's a beautiful necklance you're wearing," he added, almost as an afterthought.

She fingered the amber beads self-consciously.

"Than you. I bought it in the market yesterday," Anna replied.

Afridi gave her a knowing smile, then reached across the table beside him and handed her a packet, wrapped in brown paper.

"You've got good taste, Miss Tagore," he said. "Now tell me what you make of this."
Oddly, this passage captures what frustrated me in THE RATABAN BETRAYAL: The contents of the package sound vital but never come back into the plot after this moment; Anna is supposed to be very tough but gets self-conscious; and Afridi's "knowing smile" over a piece of bazaar jewelry makes him a bit creepy. Overall, I found the action unevenly paced, the character decisions often abrupt, and Afridi himself -- who ought to be appealing, but really isn't -- not living up to what I'd hoped. Alter's an experienced author (15 books), and the terrain for this thriller is irresistible to me, but the only person I really wanted to connect with, a local named Jigme with significant ties to Afridi's past (and the action that took the Colonel's legs), kept vanishing; instead, rather unpleasant agents seemed unable to create any real teamwork, and in the end, I felt like everyone became tainted with betrayal. (Which may be the author's point, I know. But still.)

Yes, I'd pick up another from this author, set in the same region, but more cautiously and with more relaxed expectations. If you're collecting India, Tibet, and even China espionage, this belongs on your shelf. If you want to be moved in some way, though, there are better prospects elsewhere.

No comments: