This is a novel that grabs you by the throat from the upshot. A girl has been found in the middle of a country road. It’s a hit and run. Paramedics and police arrive. While examining the child, they discover that the she is actually a he. The boy is dressed in girls’ clothing, makeup and jewellery. He is rushed to the hospital where journalist Farah Hafez so happens to be, having come to check up on her opponent in a martial arts tournament who she hospitalised. She hears the boy speak, recognises his language as her mother tongue, talks to him, becomes emotionally involved from there.
The mystery of the boy is further deepened by the discovery of a burning station wagon nearby, two charred corpses within. When Farah goes to investigate, she happens upon a nearby deserted villa. There is evidence of a shootout and people dragged through the gravel.
Farah isn’t the only people who are affected by the boy and the circumstances surrounding his discovery. There’s Danielle, the trauma doctor who accompanied the paramedics and administered first aid to him on the road. There’s the two cops tasked with cracking the case and bringing the perpetrators to justice, one older, jaded, corrupt, his partner younger and idealistic.
There’s a lot going for this novel and I can see why it’s been compared to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. Farah and her journalism are centre stage in the same way that Mikael Blomkvist was in Larsson’s work. But whereas Blomkvist was relatively straight (Lisbeth Salander being the quirky one) Farah Hafez has issues of aggression and can’t help but stray when in a relationship. She’s relatively well-drawn as a character, as are many of the lesser characters. This is a plus for the book, as there is quite an extensive cast of supporting players. Bar a few of the baddies who can be a little one-dimensional, most of this supporting cast are fleshed out nicely.
That said there were some issues I had with the author’s characterisation of Farah Hafez. At one point, she cheats on her partner. She has commitment issues, I get that. She thinks he’s making too much of a fuss, becoming too antagonist to her. I get that too. But unfortunately, the author steps into Farah’s head at this point, writes this scene from her point of view and her thoughts on this are cold. I’m no prude, I’m not moralising, but here he needlessly sheds our sympathy. There are a couple of moments like this, where Farah comes across as unfeeling and as a reader I felt myself recoil slightly from her. I have no problem with unlikeable protagonists, I read a lot of noir. But when a character is sold to you as likeable, and then they do something to make you turn against them, it’s more than a little disconcerting.
There are some problems too with the odd plot point. Mainly these surround police procedure. At the start of the novel, the police just cordon off the road, assuming the boy to be just an “ordinary” hit and run. This, even though the child ran into the middle of the road in the middle of the night, seemingly came out of nowhere. This was despite the discovery that he was dressed as a girl. At no point did they think this odd, think to search the woods. It is left for Farah to alert them to the fact that they ought to look at the nearby villa. Nor do they immediately link the boy to the nearby burning car, despite their relative proximity. When Farah first goes to the scene after the boy is brought into the hospital, the crime scene investigators let her breach the cordon and fall into conversation with her. This simply wouldn’t happen with modern law enforcement. Don’t get me wrong, I get that this is a novel and some things need be sacrificed to creative licence, but some of this was just more than a step too far.
One final criticism is that Butterfly On The Storm, which apparently is the first of a trilogy, tries to fit too much into its plot. It encompasses Afghanistan (where Farah and the boy hail from), corruption in Amsterdam (where the novel is set), corruption and organised crime in South Africa, and oligarchs, corruption and organised crime in Russia. At risk of giving spoilers, towards the end, the novel even touches on Chechen terrorism. For example, in just one chapter the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings (and the surrounding conspiracy theories) and the Moscow theatre siege of 2002 are alluded too. Before any readers of this review panic, I’m not giving too much away here, as all this really is just a minor part of the plot which pops up in just a handful of chapters. My point in mentioning this is that there is more than enough here for another book. If the next two in the trilogy are equally crammed with ideas, one has to wonder why not just write a longer series? Why not let the stories breath?
Having said all this, I need to end on a positive. For none of these points ruined the book for me. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Butterfly On The Storm is a compelling, engrossing read. It succeeds despite its technical glitches and rough edges. I certainly will read the rest of the trilogy and the author, Walter Lucius, is one to watch.
4 out of 5 stars