REVIEW SUMMARY: An intriguing thriller that delivers a fast paced reading experience that is light on genre elements but not on character and action
BRIEF SYNOPSIS:In a world where diplomacy has been transformed into celebrity culture, a diplomat from South America’s newest nation goes on the run after an assassination attempt.
PROS: Strong thriller chassis; fascinating and complex pair of protagonists.
CONS: Genre elements are almost superfluous, and are painted on with an extremely thin brush.
BOTTOM LINE: A relentlessly entertaining political thriller
Suyana Sapaki is the Face, the diplomat, for the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation. In a world where stolid diplomats have given way to glamorous supermodels and charismatic types who can charm, look good on camera and keep on top of global issues, Suyana is not on the a-list like some Faces from bigger countries are. C-lister as she is, she’s only invited to big events occasionally, if at all. She has to work hard for every political gain she and her handlers manage, and, in the end, she’s not anyone important on the world stage, despite her best efforts. There’s even talk of replacing her.
All of that changes, however, when an assassination attempt sends Suyana on the run. Who would want to assassinate the c-list Face from a no-name country anyway? Who can Suyana trust to try and figure out who is after her? Can she do right by herself, and by her country, in the process? Bullets are flying, Suyana is on the run, but she’s made of sterner stuff than her would be assassins might think…
The aforementioned Suyana Sapaki is the core of Persona. Tough, complex in background, intelligent and relentless, Suyana is a well rounded protagonist and our primary viewpoint in the novel. As the novel unfolds, and Suyana’s past, real agendas and goals come to light, she further deepens and grows. She’s definitely put through her paces and watching her try to rise to the challenges put in her way is a joy. I particularly liked her iron-fist in the velvet glove relations with some of her fellow Faces. Diplomats and spy-diplomats in science fiction do not necessarily have to be in the two-fisted Keith Laumer Retief! mold,and Valentine’s Suyana proves it ably.
Her counterpart in the novel is Daniel Park, an extremely scrappy street rat turned photojournalist who gets to be at the wrong (or right) place at the wrong time and is thus swept up into the events around Suyana. Like Suyana, he has hidden depths and a backstory that slowly emerges as the novel unfolds. His story arc, which starts off in a rather traditional mode, tightly bound to Suyana’s, takes an unexpected turn and changes as the action unfolds, deepening the world, setup, and Daniel himself.
Besides its pair of protagonists as a feature of the novel, Persona is very much a thriller in the political mold as much as is, say, Captain America the Winter Soldier is a thriller as well as a superhero movie. The favorite plot string for such novels is a chase structure over a fair portion of the story, where the protagonists are on the run, with uncertainty and danger all around them as they try to get out of their predicament. Such stories often get bonus points if those being chased and on the run cannot completely trust each other. Persona follows (and to an extent subverts) this classic formula. The author clearly has done her homework, knowing when to let the characters and the readers run to exhaustion, when to change the beats, when to pause for breath, and when to surprise the reader entirely. The novel doesn’t flag, and the author’s craft is of a high standard that keeps the book a page-turner.
Persona, however does inadvertently strike and revolves around a question that is not part of the text, and that is what is science fiction, and what is not. Persona, as I have already indicated is a top notch political thriller that follows the “extended chase scene” backbone for most of the novel and makes it work splendidly. But the genre elements are put on with a pretty light brush. The central conceit of having diplomats be celebrities, with social calendars, glamorous lifestyles and paparazzi following their every move is a speculative one, and Suyana’s United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation is a new political entity to be sure. In addition, there is some advanced photo technology that feels 20 minutes into the future at most.
However, the novel isn’t interested in exploring the implications of these speculations. They are the furniture and background rather than any sort of focus. While I found the story and the characters engaging, my instinct to want to know more about this world and how it got that way were unfulfilled. Just how Faces really work is something that the novel isn’t terribly interested in either, and a lot of questions for me remained after I finished the book. Persona is a peripheral science fiction novel, rather than one that sits within the deep core territory of the field.
Despite my reservations about its genre placement, Persona is a relentlessly entertaining novel, with a distinctive voice in style and strong characters. It’s a short, sizzling, lean thriller that wastes little time dropping the reader into the action, and rarely stops to take a breath. If this sounds like this might be of interest, you are cordially invited to the future of diplomacy as seen in Persona.