Daniel Silva’s House of Spies

I really enjoyed “House of Spies”  from both a reader’s perspective and an aspiring author’s perspective.

I obtained this book from my local library. My previous experience with Daniel Silva made me a very happy camper when I saw this book on the new arrivals shelf. I imagine this was a very popular book, so I felt myself to be a lucky reviewer when I was able to borrow this book.

I have read very many (but not all) of Daniel Silva’s books. Since this book is the most recent (2017) of his highly successful Gabriel Allon series, the reader of this review should know that there are a number of characters and plot lines that have appeared in earlier novels. I believe the reader can enjoy this book a great deal on its own, but I would suggest that the reader at least read “The Black Widow” before reading “House of Spies”. Character continuity and unfinished plot lines are facts of life in any series, but there especially relevant here. Any more specifics might spoil one or both very good novels.

In this book, Daniel Silva’s main character, Gabriel Allon, is now the head of Israeli intelligence after starting his career as a lowly assassin recruited by the almost mythical character of Ari Shamron. Allon is an art restorer in his second life, and art always enters his novels in some way, and this book is no exception. He becomes an “operational” head, so he is still free to get his hands dirty to the delight of this reader and most likely many of his loyal fans.  This time he is dealing with an ISIS-related threat that has already caused quite a bit of carnage and promises much more. Much of the novel is set in Morocco, and Silva does a great job of describing another interesting and well-drawn setting to his formidable collection of exotic sites.

What I liked about this book was that it was true to his series. There was continuity of plot lines, backstory, and character development. I enjoy his forays into the surprisingly dark side of the art world. The character of Gabriel Allon is magnificently drawn. He is a complex character that could be very easy to dislike, but his humanity and decency manages to shine through when he gets his hands dirty. He gets his hands VERY DIRTY, but Allon’s voice comes through loud and clear in virtually every bit of dialog. The story is fast-paced, and he introduces necessary modern technology including drone strikes. He has a rather long scene involving a drone attack that is probably the best scene in the book. I applaud Daniel Silva on his research to make this technology believable, yet accessible to a non-technological audience. That is not an easy task. The issue of “moral ambiguity” is present in the subtext here, and this made the book all the more rewarding intellectually.

There were two major points of dislike that I noticed in this book. I don’t think these detract from the book and certainly didn’t cut down my enjoyment of the book.

There seemed an awful lot of backstory here. Silva is walking a dangerous tightrope in trying to use plot lines and character development so necessary in a series, but he also would like this book to be able to stand by itself. Since I had read many, but not all, of his prior books, I found the backstory annoying and repetitive at times, particularly since I had just recently read “The Black Widow”. There must have been some books I missed, since a character in “House of Spies” was a former assassin that somehow wound up working for Gabriel Allon in spite of having tried to assassinate Allon in a previous novel. In that situation, there was not enough backstory for me to buy into that premise. I do have to admit, the assassin is a great character, however, and I am sure he will surface in future novels in this franchise.

In the climactic scene, Allon was “extremely operational”, and I found it difficult to believe that the head of Israeli intelligence was acting operationally on someone else’s soil without their explicit consent. Notwithstanding  that brief but necessary suspension of belief for me, it was a very good final scene.

I will be on the lookout for Silva’s next book, and I will be reading his novels that I missed. This was really enjoyable.

Voice–Daniel Silva

The notion of voice is a little difficult for an aspiring author without a lot of background in literature or creative writing. My starting “craft” book was “Writing Fiction for Dummies” by Ingermanson and Economy. They define voice as “…the particular way that a character puts together words to express rational speech and rational thought. ” They provide examples such as Huck Finn and Scarlet O’Hara. Ideally every character in a book should have his/her own voice. The definition seems deceptively simple. In practice it is hard to deliver. In addition, the author’s own voice should be evident from the work as well.

Voice is a tough nut for a beginner to crack. In the writing of a first draft, I noticed that a number of my characters sound very much the same. I feel like I failed the “voice” test. I started looking for some good examples within the thriller genre and came up with what I really thought was a great example of a “voice.” In Daniel Silva’s novels, his protagonist is Gabriel Allon, and Israeli assassin and art restorer. When Allon speaks, the reader gets the feeling that they are listening to an Israeli who is very intelligent and quick-witted, but has a sarcastic edge that emerges at appropriate times. Many thriller protagonists have a sarcastic edge, but I find it irritating when the sarcastic edge that shows itself far too often. Nothing annoys me more than to have a protagonist make cute quips in a supposed life or death situation. Daniel Silva knows when to hold the sarcasm down and when to make his character more complex and less one-dimensional. When I read one of Gabriel Allon’s lines in a Daniel Silva novel, I can almost always tell when Allon is speaking without any attributions or tags. In my second draft, I will work on the voice of my own protagonist. Daniel Silva provides a great example for a beginning thriller writer to try to emulate.

Hallmark Christmas Shows

We watched two of the infamous Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies. Despite their corniness, they managed to hold our attention. I can’t claim to have read too many romance novels, but from attending a few writing meetings and listening to some romance writers, they are very focused on their market and are worth your attention.

On the good side, the characters were attractive, the scenery was magnificent, and the “Christmas Spirit” came through, and they both had that universal characteristic of a romance, a happy ending.

On the bad side, they were corny, and very predictable. Both had the same basic structure despite a few differences. 1) Girl was having a difficult time finding romance. 2) A chance meeting with an ideal possible mate occurred. (Strangely, in both of the movies we watched, the meeting took place in an airport.) 3) Girl does not realize the mate is ideal and initially rejects the ideal male. 4) A “Christmas Miracle” occurs in which  girl and ideal mate are reunited and are moving toward a happy ever after. These steps occur at almost the same time in each movie. I timed the “Christmas Miracle” to about 20 minutes remaining in a 2 hour movie including commercial breaks. A writing template incorporating a three-act structure was evident in each. In addition, I noticed no religious symbols of any sort, and the relationships were as chaste as a freshly fallen snow.

Are these examples of bad writing? Absolutely not. Both of these screenplays were produced and appeared on television to fairly large audiences. They provided an emotional experience to the audience as well as a lot of entertainment. The content would offend no one. They sold. I would be foolish to criticize them. I submit they are excellent examples of the three-act structure. They have a clear beginning, a clear middle, and a clear ending. They show the advantages of writing to a time-tested template. They won’t win any literature prizes, but they were  commercial successes.

I recommend that any aspiring writer take a look at a few of these Hallmark Christmas movies. It would be difficult to find clearer, examples of the three-act structure. Unfortunately, this blog entry will probably be published shortly after Christmas, so the Hallmark Christmas movies will go into hiding until next year.  My guess is that  the Hallmark movies shown throughout the rest of the year will probably have the same exact structure. The Hallmark folks know their audience quite well.