Barely a year since his last novel author, Calgary-based author Jeff Buick is back with another fast-moving action thriller. This time he transports us to Abkhazia, an autonomous region inside Georgia, which has been fighting for independence since the USSR’s collapse in 1991. Given the current situation in Ukraine, using Abkhazia as a setting is an interesting and clever choice. Even more interesting is the fact that the author first came up with the idea for this novel 15 years ago. Both his story and trouble in the former USSR have been bubbling away for a long time indeed.
As the story gets underway, there are three weeks until Abkazians can vote to decide their destiny and hopefully end decades of political instability. Akhtar Kutsnia is the head of the country’s intelligence service and he and his clandestine unit will go to extreme measures to ensure the election is fair and that the right candidate wins. After capturing and interrogating a Georgian who was paid to gather information for a third party, Kutsnia and his team establish that America is planning to meddle in the election.
Of course, American and Russian interference in the politics of smaller countries is nothing new. The question here is why the US would be invested in the outcome of an election in a tiny Balkan state? Could it be because it’s situated on the preferred route for oil and gas pipelines to the Black Sea?
Meanwhile, an elite caving team is aiming to set a new world record by descending thousands of metres into Krubera, the second deepest cave on Earth, which is in Abkhazia. Joining the expedition are the Fraser brothers: Ross, a recently qualified doctor and Damon, a lawyer with the CIA. Kutsnia sees an opportunity. Believing Damon has access to CIA resources and can give him the information he needs to foil American tampering with the election, Kutsnia blackmails Damon. If he gets what he wants, Ross will be allowed to return from the caving expedition alive. If not…
Damon is in over his head. He’s a lawyer who occasionally sits in on a few debriefing sessions, not a qualified CIA field agent. Fortunately, Damon becomes remarkably resourceful when his brother’s life is threatened. Kutsnia, on the other hand, has lost his wife and has nothing more to lose. Life has hardened him. Daur Agrba, his right-hand man, likens him to a dog that has been beaten one too many and is now biting back.
Damon feels the brunt of Kutsnia’s rage when, in the middle of the night, he is unceremoniously dumped in the remote Kodor Valley, left to find his way back to the border. Dodging hostile roadside locals and opportunistic bandits, Damon has no idea that this incident is the first in a series of life-threatening situations he will face.
While Damon hatches a plan to gain access to CIA resources, the caving team commences their descent. Both parties have 27 days to complete their respective missions. The caving team will spend those days in darkness, putting their lives in the hands of people they barely know and relying on existing, possibly worn out ropes, as they plunge deeper into the depths of the cave. Sleep-deprivation and the pressure of completing the mission before food and lamp fuel run out add to the tension.
Damon’s circumstances are no less daunting. His first task is to convince Kari Howland, an analyst at the CIA’s London office and an expert on the Eastern European conflicts, to help him. There’s only one small snag – they’ve never met in person. How can he convince a stranger to risk her life in order to save someone she’s never met? But Damon is a pretty convincing guy and the duo’s investigation leads them to Istanbul and eventually back to Abkhazia.
It’s clear that ample research went into the history of this part of the world. A year-long war in 1992 led to ethnic cleansing and the deaths of around 5,000 Georgians. The devastation of war and the visceral impact it had on the area and its people is palpable.
The scenes set in the caves are meticulously described – perhaps too much so for some readers. The caving and fast-paced action elements of the story feel better suited to the screen than the page. If you enjoy intricate plots or complex, multi-faceted characters your interest might wane occasionally and you might be tempted to skim over the chases and flying bullets.
However, Buick knows what works in the action genre and he’s a pro at executing it. The Krubera Conspiracy is full of hair-raising scenes and some claustrophobic, too-close-for comfort encounters as well. Alongside the characters deep in the cave system, the reader is left dangling throughout, never sure what will happen next. Nothing builds suspense like a group of people trapped under 7,000 feet of bedrock.
The Krubera Conspiracy will appeal to readers who enjoy high-octane espionage thrillers by the likes of Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. It’s a light and entertaining read, but it also has an intriguing premise and a unique setting.
For another crime fiction novel set in areas of conflict, try Sarah Sultoon’s latest, The Shot.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars