BookBrowse Reviews The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming

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The Spanish Game

A Novel

by Charles Cumming

The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming X
The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2008, 352 pages

    Nov 2009, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book



Readers who appreciate quality spy fiction will want to put this one high on their list

In essence, The Spanish Game is a novel in two parts. The first, longer section serves to set the scene and introduce us to the protagonist, Alec Millius. Cumming's considerable literary talent is most evident here. He describes modern-day Spain in loving, exacting detail that transports the reader in a way only top-notch writing can. He is equally exacting in the creation and description of his characters:

"Mikel Arenaza, politician and friend of terror, is a lively, engaging man – I could tell as much by his manner on the phone – but the full extent of his ebullient self-confidence becomes apparent only upon meeting him. We arrange to have a drink in the old town of San Sebastian, not in an herriko taberna – the type of down-at-heel pub favored by the radical, left-wing nationalist abertzale – but in an upmarket bar where waves of tapas and uncooked mushrooms and peppers cover every conceivable surface, two barmen and a young female chef working frantically in sight of the customers…Arenaza arrives late, picking me out of the crowd within an instant of walking through the door, at least six feet of heavy good looks pulling off a charming smile beneath an unbrushed explosion of wild black hair."

Perhaps, though, Cumming's most remarkable achievement is the fine balance he achieves in his depiction of Millius, a deeply flawed character with so much baggage that in a lesser author's hands he'd be completely unlikable. He's excessively paranoid, a womanizer, an alcoholic, and generally of questionable morality. Cumming deftly shows the vulnerability that lurks underneath Millius's damaged persona - both his loneliness and his desire to return to the fold of the espionage community are palpable, and the reader develops the utmost sympathy for him. Adding to the character's appeal is that he's not perfect; he makes mistakes and fails as often as he succeeds. The Spanish Game is the sequel to Cumming's earlier work, A Spy by Nature (which was released in paperback in the USA in November 2008). While this second entry stands reasonably well on its own, one cannot escape the feeling that one would understand Millius better having read the first book.

The second part of the The Spanish Game consists of non-stop action and one shocking plot twist after another. The reader is swept up right along with Millius in the confusion. At this point, the plot becomes completely unpredictable and, like Millius, the reader never knows whom to trust or what will happen next. The tension stays high right up to the end of the book, keeping readers in a state of anxiety to, quite literally, the last page of the novel.

The Spanish Game does have idiosyncrasies that may lessen its appeal for some readers. Cumming's attention to the set-up in the first half may frustrate readers looking for an action-adventure novel; and when the action does take off, it's very sudden; there's no build-up of tension as the book shifts gears. In addition, the history of the Basque separatists is complex, and at times the way Cumming chooses to relate it comes off as clumsy -- too forced and too much like an encyclopedia entry. Finally, the ending is a bit open-ended (this is the second volume in a planned trilogy) and may leave readers who like tidy conclusions unsatisfied. Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally well-written addition to the genre, and deserves the praise it has garnered in both the USA and UK, where it was first published. Readers who appreciate quality spy fiction will want to put this one high on their list.

About the Author
Charles Cumming was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1971. He was educated at Eton and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with First Class Honours in English Literature in 1994. In the summer of 1995, he was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The recruitment process described in the first Alec Millius novel, A Spy By Nature, is apparently based closely on his own experience to the point that he has been accused of breaking the spirit of the Officials Secret Act (as explained in an essay on his website).

A year later he moved to Montreal where he began working on a novel based on his experiences with the SIS. A Spy By Nature was bought in a two-book deal by Penguin in 1999. It was published in 2001 in the UK, but not until 2007 in the USA (by St Martins Press). The Hidden Man (a stand-alone novel) was published in the UK in 2003 but has not yet been released in the USA. The second Alec Milius novel, The Spanish Game, was published in 2006 in the UK (2008 in the USA). Another stand-alone novel, Typhoon, set in China, was published in the UK in June 2008 and in the USA in October 2009.

Cumming moved to Madrid with his wife in 2001, returning to London in 2005, where he is a contributing editor of The Week magazine and occasionally writes book reviews for The Mail on Sunday.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2008, and has been updated for the November 2009 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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