Antony Johnston is best known for his varied work in the comics field. Over the course of his career he’s taken on just about every genre imaginable. With the recent successful adaptation of his and artist Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City (as the movie Atomic Blonde) he’s become known more as a spy writer. I previously reviewed his sequel to The Coldest City, The Coldest Winter, which I found even better than the first volume. He further cements those espionage credentials with the release of his first prose spy novel, The Exphoria Code.
There’s a reason that writers like to stick with the Cold War. The real world is changing so quickly it’s always possible that your cutting edge storyline with be yesterday’s news by the time it hits the shelves or worse, look horribly dated. Achieving the goal of making a modern story that’s also a bit timeless can be tough but I think Johnston pulls it off.
We are introduced to Brigitte Sharp, hacker extraordinaire and MI6 desk jockey whose first attempt at being a field operative went pear shaped.The story begins as she’s picking up the pieces and deciding whether she’s going to try and get back in the field, continue to ride a desk or quit SIS altogether. Of course she gets dragged back into an operation, otherwise we wouldn’t have a story, but Johnston isn’t afraid to have things go wrong for his lead and let her make mistakes. Too often fictional spies never error and are perfect performing automatons. Sharp screws things up, jumps to wrong conclusions and runs from trouble. It makes her a real human and less of a one-note action hero.
The plot involves a mole hunt because it’s not a spy story unless there’s a mole rattling around somewhere. Johnston finds a good mix of real world spying and deduction with a bit of Bondian action to raise the stakes. He’s also not afraid of throwing out jargon and terms that might not be familiar but trusts you can keep up. The ending which has various characters we’ve met converging to stop a terror threat is truly exciting.
If looking at criticisms, I would have liked to see Johnston provide a bit more sense of place. The action moved and he created interesting characters but the spaces they inhabited lacked pop. If we’re in the desert, I want to feel the heat and in a office space I want to hear that air vent that keeps rattling and is making me go crazy.
I would also caution Johnston against letting the reader get too far ahead of the main character. It’s one thing when the writer tips the reader off in advance, ala Columbo, to important information your hero doesn’t have. However when the reader has the same information as the character and can easily put the pieces together there’s a danger of making your lead character seem like a dim bulb. As it has been said – “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.”
Finally there’s a trip Sharp takes late in the story that feels like too large a logical leap. I understand why he did it but I think the same realization could have been achieved in a different, more believable way.
Criticisms aside, Johnston has created a three dimensional spy that I’m eager to see again. We also met some interesting secondary characters that are worthy of further exploration that he could expand on to build his spy ensemble. In the real world, most spies are working as a team and I appreciate books that try to show that. The book sets up things nicely to continue with a sequel and, based on the way things are left, I think the next one could even top his first in the series.
TL;DR – Johnston does for hackers what le Carré did for short, fat office managers – turn them into spies you can root for.