SCORPION'S GATE by Richard E. Clarke
(copyright 2005, Putnam Adult, $24.95, 320pp, ISBN-10: 0-399-15294-6, ISBN-13: 978-0-399-15294-8)
(book review by Mark R. Leeper):
I actually came upon this book looking for another book by Richard E. Clarke, BREAKPOINT. Clarke has written two fiction books, though he is probably better known for his non-fiction books on terrorism, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES: INSIDE AMERICA'S WAR ON TERROR--WHAT REALLY HAPPENED and DEFEATING THE JIHADISTS: A BLUEPRINT FOR ACTION. Clarke is a government consultant on intelligence, cyber-security and counter-terrorism. He was an advisor to Reagan, Clinton, and the two Bushes. But he retired in 2003 and apparently turned to writing fiction on the subjects he knew so well. I thought reading his novels would be a painless way to learn about current politics and terrorism. I expected his book to be an education in the same way that Tom Clancy books are textbooks on the American military machine.
The book takes place in the near future. At this point the Americans are out of Iraq. But more interestingly, the Saudis are out of Saudi Arabia. At least they are out of the country formerly known as Saudi Arabia and now re-named Islamyah. The Saudis have been forced out of power and fled the country. Sunnis have replaced them with a new government it is finding how and how not to operate. Meanwhile, there is a prize of one third of the world's petroleum supply at stake. The Americans and the Chinese are vying for that oil. The real villain, however, is the Iranian covert Qods Force that is trying to destabilize the Sunnis, particularly in Islamyah and Bahrain.
Clarke has spent much of his career in that part of the world and discussing what he has found. He can present a lot of characters with some authenticity. Unfortunately I cannot say that SCORPION'S GATE works as a novel. Most of what is good about the reading would have been better in a non-fiction book. We do get a lot of points of view in seemingly endless café conversations and briefing room meetings. The book has more characters than I could manage to remember and most are not there to move the plot along but to present their take on the politics on the Middle East. For a while all the conversations are of interest but very soon too many abbreviations and names of Jihadist groups and defense organizations creep in and the conversations become opaque. Perhaps the dialog is too realistic for the book's own good.
Because this is a fiction book, one is not quite sure which of these are real acronyms and real organizations and which, if any, were invented for the fictional plot. There is no character to care much about like we care for Clancy's Jack Ryan. There are people we keep coming back to, but not for long enough to make their characters interesting. Perhaps Clarke had too great an ambition to educate the reader, but the story too long remains a camel caravan of expository lumps. The book might very well have done with a glossary, but perhaps the glossary would be of more interest than the story itself.