Written by Greg Rucka
Published by Bantam
Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country wasn’t like most comic book series. Another comic serial about a British spy would likely be a superficial pastiche of James Bond clichés, but in the hands of Greg Rucka, Queen and Country was a taut, psychologically challenging, procedure-oriented game of political maneuvering and morally debatable (in the best sense) international intrigue. And the heaviest emphasis was on the personal demons endured by the series’ lead agent, Tara Chase, as she coped with the internal stress of assassinations, carefully planned missions gone awry, and the loss of several colleagues.
The series took a strange twist, in my opinion, when Rucka chose to write a novel about one of Tara’s missions (A Gentleman’s Game). The comic book incarnation went on hold, returned briefly, but felt slightly off-kilter when it did, as if too much tragedy had confronted Tara beyond its pages and she didn’t quite fit back into the format. Rucka’s most recent foray into Tara’s life, the prose novel Private Wars, however, finds Tara’s life and adventures slipping comfortably back into the world of the unadorned written word.
Private Wars concerns itself with Tara’s efforts to lift a potentially sympathetic political figure out of Uzbekistan. It might be an easy job, except there are divergent political agendas at work within the British government, and Tara’s effectively going against U.S. expectations for the region. As might be expected from Rucka, it’s a tense read, dramatic and tragic. There’s nothing within that rewrites its genre, but it’s all delivered by a dedicated craftsman who understands pace and character.
As he’s done in the past, Rucka stuffs Private Wars with complex personal agendas, crafty political gamesmanship, and surprising plot twists. In anything, he’s probably outdone himself this time. Tara’s reasons for being in Uzbekistan aren’t what she was told, and when things go to hell, she quickly finds her entire mission turned completely upside down. Similarly, her boss Paul Crocker has sent her on a mission he didn’t intend for, and he finds himself attempting to turn a political minefield to his own advantage.
Probably the most interesting writing Rucka’s able to pull off is switching up allegiances effectively and convincingly. CIA rat Aaron Tower turns out to be an okay guy when you’re on his side. Incoming Uzbeki president Sevara Malikov never truly leaves behind her manipulative, self-serving ways, but she offers glimmers of humanity in the guilt she tries to hide when dealing with her family, as well as in her capitulation to U.S. demands to improve humanitarian conditions. Only ex-KGB operative Zahidov skews ever-so-slightly toward simplistic comic book villainy, and even there, Rucka imbues him with a palpable nationalism, a recognizably overzealous sense of pride, and a more sad devotion to a love that won’t be returned to him.
Still, Rucka’s best work comes from the comparison and contrast of Tara Chase against her initial rescue target, Ruslan Malikov. Single parents, both widowed by the murder of their partner, Tara and Ruslan are both torn from their children, driven by regret and rage, and their final scene together leads one to wonder: is there any real difference between them? That human angle adds depth and human connection to Private Wars’ racing plot, leaving readers not only breathless, but hopefully moved and with something much more human than your typical thriller.