Written by HN Wake — This is the second full-length thriller by HN Wake and a repeat outing for her gutsy character, CIA agent Mac Ambrose. The action takes place in Hong Kong and various spots in Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur, Miri, and the rain forests of Sarawak Province – with occasional scenes back at the CIA mothership in Langley, Virginia. Wake’s familiarity with Asia and Southeast Asia, gained during more than 20 years’ working overseas for the US government, stands her in good stead here, as the ease and detail with which she describes these lush locales effectively transport us right into the setting.
Mac is deep under cover in Hong Kong, at a new job in the Risk Analysis department of a major international financial institution called Legion Bank, and her real identity is known only to one of the bank’s executives, Stuart Fairbanks. She’s been stashed in this job to give her time to recover from her last assignment in Jakarta, where an asset she’d recruited was assassinated by the Indonesian secret service – an outcome she blames on herself. Memories of finding her agent’s body are just one of the ghosts that haunt her throughout this narrative.
When another agent – Josh Halloway – goes missing out of Kuala Lumpur, Mac’s boss back in Langley tells her to find him. Gradually we learn her concern about Halloway’s disappearance is not just collegial solidarity, it’s also personal. Halloway is handsome, charming, and intriguing, and they’d met and connected in Hong Kong. Mac was falling for him. To provide bank cover for her search, Fairbanks makes sure she’s assigned to the risk appraisal of a potential Malaysian client, Alghaba Financing. Alghaba is a major player in Malaysia’s timber and palm oil industries and, if the bank takes the company on, it will receive millions of dollars in fees.
Given the opportunity to kill two birds at once, Mac flies to the Malaysian capital. When she checks in with the US embassy, she finds the ambassador has a chip on his shoulder the size of a teak log and is unwilling to help her. Nevertheless, Mac uncovers evidence that before Halloway disappeared he visited Miri, an oil and gas town on the northern coast of Borneo, and did some scuba diving there. Through the diving, he met and befriended an American medical student and environmental activist, with whom he’d gone trekking into the rain forest. Possibly the student was one of the last to see Halloway, but he can’t help her; he was murdered shortly before she arrived in Miri.
Without these leads, Mac must develop some unconventional allies to further her investigation, and Wake’s choice of a female protagonist with the investigatory skills, cunning, and physical courage to undertake her next steps make this a refreshing antidote to too much testosterone.
However, the goings-on back at Langley aren’t as persuasive. They add complication and some coincidence that detract from the main story. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how people in the field always regard the folks back at the main office: “What are they thinking?” At times Mac’s own behavior is a bit murky, as she frequently presses a little too hard in trying to get information from a potential informant, and I never did figure out how she got the key to Josh’s room at the Miri Beach Resort. These issues mar the plot’s plausibility.
What Mac discovers in the rain forest, the lengths people will go to keep her discovery a secret, and the fate of Josh Halloway are the essential questions of this compelling story. Wake knows how to put together an exciting narrative, an exotic and interesting setting, and believable characters. I read a draft of the novel prior to proofreading and suspect that the cosmetic flaws I noticed have been dealt with, though some editing would sharpen the prose, and, as mentioned, a couple of plot issues were not fully addressed. Perhaps it’s like real life; you never have a complete explanation. HN Wake is an exciting new author worth tracking.
Read our interview with HN Wake to find out what she loves about Mac Ambrose, her engaging female protagonist.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars