Reading a new Steve Berry novel is like visiting an old friend. No matter the plot line the reader immediately reaches a comfort level with the knowledge that the author is a master of historical fiction who has the ability to capture your attention and take you for an educationally thrilling ride. He has the ability to create believable scenarios involving new and returning characters performing in a pseudo-historical thriller at a high level. In the eleventh iteration of his Cotton Malone series, THE 14TH COLONY Berry meets expectations by producing a searing plot that evolves slowly and more importantly developing a realistic storyline which could have actually taken place.
Berry begins the novel with the June 7, 1982, meeting between Pope John Paul and President Ronald Reagan at the Vatican. The topic was Poland and the threats and oppression meted out by the Soviet Union. At the time the Kremlin’s hold over its Eastern European neighbor was weakening even as they tried to crush the Solidarity labor movement which emanated from Gdansk. The two men had recently survived assassination attempts, one by a man obsessed with a Hollywood actress, and one by a Bulgarian assassin in the pay of Moscow. The two men spoke in conspiratorial tones to undo the February 1945 Yalta Agreements concerning Poland and help diminish Soviet control of its Eastern European satellites. Reagan’s approach was a massive Pentagon rearmament which he knew the Soviets could not afford and the goal was to have them spend themselves into oblivion. Berry’s description of the meeting and other historical events throughout the book relies on a certain amount of conjecture, but also a solid grounding in historical accuracy, which he clearly explains in his writer’s note at the end of the book.
(St. John’s Church, Washington, DC)
The scene swiftly shifts to the present day with a Russian surveillance plane flying over Lake Baikal in southern Siberia with Cotton Malone aboard which will soon be brought down by a SAM missile. Berry lays out Malone’s mission which was to learn about the machinations of a former KGB agent, Alexsandr Zorin and Vadim Belchenko, an old archivist for the KGB’s First Directorate. The agenda of the two men was clear – revenge against the United States for the destruction of the Soviet Union. Zorin, in particular, was apoplectic about events from 1989-1991 when he moved to southern Siberia where he was joined by like-minded people setting up their own community. It appears that the Kremlin was split between hardliners who supported a mission against the United States and those who did not.
Berry reintroduces a number of important characters from previous novels. Stephanie Nell, the head of the Justice Department’s Magellan Billet has been fired as a new president is about to replace Danny Daniels. Cassiopeia Vitt, Malone’s former lover, whose relationship redevelops throughout the novel. Luke Daniels, a Malone protégé and nephew to President Daniels also plays a major role. New characters aside from Zorin and Belchenko include SVR agent, Nikolai Osin who had requested American help and lays out for Nell what she is up against in the closing hours of her time in office. Jamie Kelly, an American who spied for the Soviet Union for decades and had in his possession important intelligence information. A number of officials from the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal society created by General Henry Knox, our first Minister of War after the American Revolution to look after revolutionary officer’s interests, even after the army was dissolved. Zorin’s girlfriend and SVR agent, Anya Pedrova, plays a limited role as do a number of others. Berry also includes historical figures like Pope John Paul, Ronald Reagan, and former KGB head and Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov.
(Author, Steve Berry)
Zorin was convinced of a US plan called “Forward Pass,” supposedly agreed to by Reagan and John Paul to destroy the Soviet Union. He believed it was implemented creating chaos and allowing oligarchs to steal the resources of the Russian people and create a criminal mafia that controlled his homeland. His revenge would be based on a plan developed by Andropov in 1984 to decapitate the American government.
Berry carefully lays out his plot as Zorin’s obsession plays out. His vehicle is Andropov’s plan which was based on the location of “suitcase nuclear weapons,” or RA115s, five of which were disseminated in the early 1980s in the event of nuclear war with the US. The question was whether the weapons were still operable after twenty-five years and how would they be employed. A second plot line that rests on a good deal of historical fact is How the Society of Cincinnati’s held documents outlining an American plan to invade and seize Canada called the l 14th colony which Berry ties into Russian resentment which is left for Malone and his cohorts to dig up and solve.
(War of 1812 map)
It is a race against time as intelligence showed that the Kremlin was fixated on a number of documents. First, Andropov’s plan to assassinate the American leadership; secondly the “zero amendment” which refers to the 20th amendment of the US Constitution that deals with presidential succession, and lastly the Tallmadge Journal written by George Washington Chief of Intelligence. Andropov dies in 1984 so his plan cannot be implemented, but Zorin and company have resurrected it for the January 20, 2009, inauguration of the new president Governor Warner Scott Fox, an intelligence and foreign policy neophyte who along with other members of his new administration where skeptical about to accepting advice from a soon to be former President Daniels, Stephanie Nell, or Cotton Malone.
As in most spy thrillers time is of the essence, and it becomes a race to negate what the assassins hope to achieve. As per usual, Steve Berry has concocted an absorbing thriller in creating THE 14TH COLONY where he explores flaws in our Constitution and the presidential succession act, the secrets (both real and made-up) of America’s oldest fraternal organization, the Society of Cincinnati, and our sometimes contentious relationship with our northern neighbor. The book engages the reader from the outset and keeps them in a vise-like grip until the conclusion of the novel. In addition to the breakneck speed, character development is just as well-developed as in previous Malone thrillers, with each character having their own set of demons as well as long held grudges that are plaguing them. Some might argue that the book is a little drawn out with the violence that is interjected, but for me it is just about right.