Alex Berenson’s sequel to THE FAITHFUL SPY continues to develop the character of John Wells, the CIA operative who penetrated al-Qaeda where he remained for almost ten years. During that time he rejected western religion and converted to Islam. In THE GHOST WAR we find Wells in a much different situation that does not quite measure up to his character development in the previous novel. The story begins at a rotting pier in Inchon, South Korea, an industrial port fifty miles west of Seoul. Ted Beck, another CIA operative is scanning the horizon looking for a “cigarette boat” called the Phantom that is to be used to extract Dr. Sung Kwan, a North Korean scientist essential to their nuclear program who had been flipped by the CIA. The rescue attempt does not go smoothly and the CIA counter intelligence group is brought in to investigate as the narrative unfolds.
The story line has a number of threads that are drawn together in an interesting web of intelligence that needs thorough development. To Berenson’s credit he pulls it off flawlessly. The reader is presented with the improved offensive capacity of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Further, a CIA mole in the office of counter-intelligence dealing with East Asia is ever present. Former Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) are discovered after Wells is brought into the story. A Chinese general on the Politburo’s Standing Committee develops a scenario involving confrontation with the United States to seize power. China and Iran enter into an alliance as part of the plot, and the United States and China are brought to the brink of war. All of these threads fit nicely as the plot evolves and Wells is inserted at strategic points to solve a number of problems.
Members of THE FAITHFUL SPY cast of characters reappear. Wells’ girlfriend and handler, Jennifer Exley plays a prominent role as does Ellis Shafer, Exley’s CIA boss, plus Vinny Duto, now Director of the CIA, who despite Wells’ success in stopping a major terrorist attack at Times Square still has little respect for his talents. New characters are added including George Tyson, a rather large and brusque Deputy Director of Counter Intelligence, Henry Williams, the Commander of the USS Decateur, General Li Ping, and Chief of the People’s Liberation Army and a host of spies and other types, including former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Within the many story lines there are a number of secondary situations that emerge that are interesting. In tracking the enhanced training of the Taliban and their new inventory of weapons, a Russian prisoner taken in a cave in Afghanistan is linked to a rich arms dealer who among his many residences are one in East Hampton, Long Island where Wells recruits the Chief of Police to assist him in breaking into the arms dealer’s compound. The Chinese-Iranian rapprochement is also interesting and the analysis that Berenson presents as to why it was beneficial to both sides is very worrisome when thinking about the current nuclear negotiations with Iran and the slowing of Chinese economic growth. Berenson also offers accurate insights into Chinese politics, as well as the plight of the poor and the overall internal domestic situation in China. As he did in his previous novel, Berenson is not shy about sharing his opinion of American foreign policy under the Bush administration as he weaves historical issues that we confront today back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Overall, THE GHOST WAR is a very entertaining novel, but I expected more of the John Wells character. Perhaps building upon his conversion to Islam which he now appears to have moved away from, and more of the internal division that exists in the US foreign policy and intelligence community might improve the narrative. Despite this disappointment I look forward to reading the third installment of the John Wells series, THE SILENT MAN and I do recommend THE GHOST WAR to those who enjoy this genre.