“A metaphor walks into a bookstore…”
“State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny is like a traditional Robert Ludlum political thriller crossed with a John le Carré character study only with women at the center of the story.”
The above exchange will make sense to those who read State of Terror. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny have written what is inarguably one of the most anticipated book releases of the year. In many ways, State of Terror’s notoriety is all the marketing needed to sell it. Here is a novel conceived and written by two of the strongest and most influential women in their respective fields – politics and crime fiction. And yet, in other ways, this book’s trajectory could be determined by a number of other factors more challenging to control. Among them: the divisive nature of the current political landscape, a much-loved sub-genre – the political thriller – more often associated with male authors and male readers, and two loyal fanbases who no doubt have in their minds expectations based on the previous accomplishments of both practitioners. Thankfully, with only a few caveats, State of Terror successfully overcomes these potential obstacles to present an entertaining storyline that facilitates rumination and provides food for thought on a host of complex themes and situations.
State of Terror’s focal character is Ellen Adams, a newly appointed Secretary of State serving under her political opponent, the President of the United States. As the novel opens, Ellen is making her way to the Capitol Building after a disastrous trip to North Korea. Little does she know, but the day is about to get immeasurably worse. Anahita Dahir, a low-level foreign service officer has just received a coded message that warns of several imminent terrorist strikes which traditional intelligence methods somehow overlooked.
As these tragedies escalate, Ellen pulls together an unofficial team to help stop the madness. Included is Ellen’s own daughter Katherine who is now running her mother’s media empire; her closest friend and personal advisor, Betsy Jameson; and Anahita Dahir (despite opposition from other cabinet members.) What follows is an exhilarating investigation that takes them from Washington, DC to Palm Beach, Florida to Pakistan and beyond.
By centering the story on the female characters, these formidable writers bring a freshness to the expected tropes of the political thriller. Whether male fans of the genre are willing to take this journey with the men taking a backseat remains to be seen, but those who do give the novel a chance will most assuredly find themselves caught up in the plotline.
Early in the novel there are some passages designed to present Ellen Adams as a complex woman with divided loyalties – both a political powerhouse and a devoted mother. That message would have been just as evident without the heavy-handed technique employed, but thankfully after a few occurrences, this habit fades and readers are allowed to become acquainted with Ellen Adams on their own terms. Louise Penny has always excelled at crafting relatable characters and that is true in State of Terror as well. Not just Ellen, but many of the characters are given a level of depth that will have readers invested in their journeys and its outcome.
Following the traditional thriller structure, Clinton and Penny allow their story to unfold incrementally, like a rock rolling down a hill and gaining momentum with time. Some readers may find the early chapters slow going and over-packed with new characters, but by the halfway point of State of Terror those disparate pieces will begin to fall into place. The final third of the novel moves at breakneck speed and truly keeps the reader breathless with new and unexpected developments.
For the most part, State of Terror navigates the difficulty of being both hyper-realistic and enjoyably entertaining with interesting and effective approaches. In some ways, these two goals are in constant conflict with each other, so this is no easy feat. At one point a scene taking place in the White House situation room involving a tense military initiative is juxtaposed with a dinner party in which all the political negotiations are happening via non-verbal and/or subtle means. The writers just about pull off this challenging moment except for one minor misstep which tips over into unnecessary (and unrealistic) melodrama.
State of Terror is fiction, but its clear to anyone following today’s world politics that the concepts exhibited are all too real. Readers are presented with a worst-case scenario that is born out of both uninformed choices and deliberate sabotage. This is also an opportunity to examine decisions such as the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in authentic ways without preaching to the choir. It is unlikely to change any minds politically, but it may induce some important conversations between readers on different sides of the aisle.
Longtime fans of Louise Penny should know that Three Pines is not completely left behind in this new venture. Along with some clever easter egg references which fans will immediately recognize, there is a development late in the novel that could have repercussions in future Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books.
There was understandable trepidation when the partnership between Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton was first announced. In the end, how individual readers feel about State of Terror will, as always, be determined on a case-by-case basis. What cannot be denied is the honesty and hope with which these women imbue each word. For that reason alone, State of Terror is a recommended read.
Disclaimer: A print edition of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.