REVIEW: Zhena by Michael Pennington
Dear Mr. Pennington,
I’m a fan of military suspense novels from way back when “The Hunt for Red October” was first published. Your novel, “Zhena,” caught my attention in that I wanted to know how well a Russian sleeper spy novel could work this long after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The novel starts well. We’re in the old, basement files of some former Soviet spy agency with an aged government worker questioning why someone is poking around here so many years since this area was last accessed. We quickly discover that a 20 year old program is being reactivated and the primary agent to be recovered is Susan Anderson.
Susan is a Navy wife. She grew up in an orphanage, attended Purdue University on a scholarship where she met Bill Anderson who was in the ROTC. It was insta-love. Susan just “knew” that Bill was the man for her. Now after almost twenty years of marriage, Bill is the XO of a submarine, they have two children and are living the American Dream – Navy style. Bill’s climbed the ranks and Susan has been behind him the whole way.
And now we, the reader, learn why after Susan receives a strange phone call one night. At first, when a series of noises begin, she thinks it’s someone’s fax machine. But when a wave of nausea overtakes her and she briefly loses consciousness, she wonders. Then bizarre things begin to happen – things which alternately frighten and infuriate her. Who is behind all this and why is she starting to question her entire life? And can she figure it out, and save her family, before the other agents realize the recovery didn’t work?
The book is listed at Fictionwise as a suspense/thriller so it didn’t bother me that Bill never makes an appearance in the story. Despite being published by Hearts on Fire Books, there’s no romance beyond Susan and Bill having a happy marriage. So with the emphasis on suspense and thrills, I wanted to be on the edge of my seat as I read. I wanted pulse pounding excitement, damn it. Unfortunately, that isn’t what I got.
The writing is stilted at times with awkward insertion of facts. There are scenes, such as with the scene involving the Russian agent Elena in Newport, that are weird.
Elena had nearly passed out when she saw Sasha and Mara together. Elena knew Mara’s new name was Jean. A hope sprung up inside her. Perhaps Sasha had just forgotten protocol and was trying to contact the other primary herself. What she didn’t realize was that Mara hadn’t been activated yet as she had. Of course it wouldn’t take her long to figure that out. Perhaps if she just allowed Sasha to see her, they could talk once Mara had left.
WTF? Why would the italicized part be in a paragraph from Elena’s POV?
And instead of a story which had me madly flipping pages to find out what happens next, I felt very uninvolved. It was almost like I was listening to a voice droning on and on. There were almost no visuals, no clues about facial expressions, movements, emotions, anything. As a reader, I felt detached from what’s going on. But then maybe that’s the automaton response you’re trying to have Susan feel as The Voice of her Soviet conditioning is taking over her and she’s detached from it all.
By the end of the book, I felt I’d invested enough time to want to know how it would all end but not because I felt any emotional attachment to Susan. I mean, even the cabin killing spree was so flat and dull. My thoughts? “Susan blows way some of the villains and searches for the missing child of her friend.” Yawn, flip another page.
Okay, I take some of that back. I did get a touch worked up about the fact that Susan has no problem taking out three of them but then she suddenly decides to offer the leader an out? Go away and we’ll call it quits. WTF?? Did she honestly think this driven man would just shrug, grin and head off leaving her alone? Come on! That’s just stupid – as she quickly finds out.
I also found it amazing that Susan manages to find people from 20 years ago who remember so many minute details about people they briefly met. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch last week much less the interests of people I barely met over twenty years ago.
You include a nice plug for Purdue University but a suspense book isn’t the place for it. It adds nothing to the story except to put the brakes on for 2-3 pages. This is one of the many times that there is too much detail about extraneous things.
The book also has a distressing tendency to stop for a 3 page recount of the action up til that point. A refresher isn’t a bad thing but totally halting the narrative flow is another.
A final item that I have to grouch about is the fact that there is no spacing in this ebook to mark changes in POV. Since I downloaded a Sony format of the story from Fictionwise, this pissed me off. Also, the times when the Russian alphabet is used the letters show up as “Russian characters” despite what format I looked at.
The basic plot is interesting and I could have believed that there was a secret Soviet sleeper cell awaiting reactivation. But the story telling didn’t engage me and there were too many other issues which detracted from my reading pleasure to suit me.