Sunday, 20 November 2016

On Edge by Albert Ashforth

There’s much to recommend this book. The author, Albert Ashforth, has military experience and served with the US military in various postings overseas. Then later he returned to service as a military contractor, taking postings in Bosnia, Macedonia, Germany, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Her certainly knows his stuff and this is amply demonstrated throughout the text which shines with authenticity.

That said, however, I struggled to get through this book. In fact, I found reading it a chore. A big part of this was because I read a review eBook copy, provided to me by the review service NetGalley. This is usually not a problem, NetGalley providing review copies to book bloggers like myself which are in every way as good as the final product sold to the reader. On this occasion, something went wrong. I don’t know if it was the publisher’s fault or NetGalley’s but the eBook I was provided, the entire text was littered with random digits. There is a review on Amazon dated 13th September 2016 complaining of the same thing, so it is not just me who had this problem. I contacted the publishers to inform them of this and received no response.

So, I ploughed on, read the novel as best I could. On Edge is basically a procedural set in Afghanistan. In the draw down days of the American involvement there, an American officer is shot and killed by an Afghan soldier, a green-on-blue killing, something that has become a real problem for ISAF forces. Green-on-blue killings are yet another insurgency tactic, the Taliban infiltrating the nascent Afghan security services and then turning on their Western mentors, or the Taliban threatens the family of an existing Afghan soldier, forcing them to do their bidding. Anyhow, in this case our protagonist, Alex Klear, a military contractor, is hired to go back to Afghanistan and investigate this killing. From the outset, he’s given reason to believe it’s not as simple as a green-on-blue, not least by the insistence of his superior that he familiarise himself with the recent massive fraud committed at the Kabul Bank.

Much of the plot of On Edge is based on real events. The fraud and subsequent collapse of the Kabul Bank is real, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, frauds ever perpetuated on a bank in the world. Over a billion dollars of US money was embezzled by corrupt Afghan banking officials and much of the money was never recovered. Similarly, green-on-blue killings do occur and are a huge problem. The author clearly knows Afghanistan and many of the locations and events depicted in the novel feel real.

On Edge is a slow burning novel, it starts slowly and continues at this pace. This probably wouldn’t be a problem but with the problems I had with the formatting (see above) I found that it dragged. But there were other problems I had with this book which I think had nothing to do with the formatting.

I found the author’s depiction of the protagonists’ relationship with women problematic. Every woman is described by Alex Klear as sexy in some way. This reaches its nadir when two assassins have him at gunpoint, they’re literally about to kill him and he still describes the female assassin as “sexy”. Really? You’re held at gunpoint, about to die and you notice how attractive someone is? More generally, this plethora of sexy women is a problem that blights the genre more generally to the point where it’s become a rather tired cliché. Why in every thriller are all the women sexy? Do intelligence agencies, terrorist groups, and others not hire ordinary, regular women? And why are only female characters’ attractiveness commented on? Why not the men?

But the most galling thing is when Alex’s drink is spiked by one of main female characters, ostensibly to get him into bed. He manages to get out of that situation but then reflects that he forgives her, as he should be honoured that she wants to bed him so bad. Really? Seriously? Somebody spikes your drink with Rohypnol or Ketamine and you just shrug it off as one of those things? He doesn’t conclude that she’s a bunny boiler with serious issues, he doesn’t conclude that she’s seriously dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. Nope, he just takes it in his stride, thinks this is ok, a compliment.

Another issue I had was with his description of Afghans. As mentioned, the author has clearly been to Afghanistan, clearly knows the country. But his description of Afghans was, well, for wont of a better word, colonial. Throughout the novel American characters talk about how the Afghans have different values, that they, the Americans, can never truly hope to understand them. There’s talk of the Afghans being corrupt and dishonest, disloyal and ungrateful. While this undoubtedly reflects the opinion of some of the American and allied soldiers out there, and the author is simply reflecting that in the narrative, at no point is this challenged by anyone, not even the protagonist.

Linked to this is the notion of the “noble savage”. There is a tribal leader who rescues the protagonist at one point and is clearly a “good” Afghan and the author talks here about the code of the Pashtuns, Pastunwali. But it’s all done in an overly-simplistic way with little nuance. It reminded me of the way British novelists at the time of Empire might have written about the natives of India or Africa. This is reinforced when the protagonist goes to Dubai and uses Pashtunwali to force another Afghan to part with vital information on the bank fraud, information the man was trying to sell for twenty-five million euros. The protagonist and the woman he is working with (yet another sexy femme fatale) tell us that the Afghan had no choice but to part with the information and miss out on the twenty-five million. Really? This character has turned his back on life in Afghanistan, gone to Dubai to make his fortune. Are we meant to believe that because he’s Afghan he suddenly reverts to being bound by tribal honour?  

If all this sounds critical, perhaps I’m being overly harsh. This is a well-written procedural and there’s much here to like. The protagonist, Alex Klear, is generally likeable. The plot, while slow moving, is interesting enough. The blend of fact and fiction with the Kabul Bank fraud and the very real problem of green-on-blue killings is original. Perhaps if the formatting hadn’t been such a problem I would have enjoyed it more, perhaps the issues I’ve highlighted above wouldn’t have seemed so galling. As it is however, I can only award this novel two out of five stars.

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