This book was lent to me by a friend at work and I such I had no real expectations as I started reading it. I am a fan of military history and fiction though I tend to leave stories concerning more recent conflicts alone. Reading this book was something of an exception therefore, set as it is around the time of the First Gulf war.
The plot follows a man named Gus Peake, a champion at competition rifle shooting but with no formal military training as he assists with a Kurdish rebellion in the deserts and eventually the cities of Iraq. The subplots follow two police detectives as the piece together Gus' life before he set off and exploring his reasons for going. These sections of the novel serve to build the background of the action that takes place in Iraq.
The plot may sound a little silly but it is handled well. Gus' lack of military experience is played upon along with his seeming naivety about the situation he finds himself in. He is fighting to fulfil a debt of honour but any idea of a romantic adventure is quickly smashed when he realises the reality of the conflict. The bickering detectives back in England are handled nicely as well, meeting a number of characters for Gus' past life and creating an ever changing prediction of his chances of survival. Gus' success in the early stages of the conflict results in a counter-sniper being dispatched to deal with him. Major Aziz is far from your ordinary pantomime villain you may expect in this sort of story, he a family man and war hero involved in a plot to overthrow Saddam Hussain. I personally found him a far more developed and interesting character than Gus.
The story also involves aid workers, ex soldiers and traders which give different views of the conflict and makes for a more rounded story. The rebellion is not shown to be good Kurds against evil Iraqis, the results of the fighting are shown by the aid workers helping the injured civilians and the cruelty that the Kurds inflict on some of their victims makes it hard to root for wither side. However the only really weak strand of the story concerns a group of journalists attempting to report on the rebellion when it turns out a woman is leading it. The subplot concerning them adds very little to the story and in my opinion was a major contributor to the fact that the book felt a little plodding in the middle, little happens of any note and could have been cut down to create a faster flowing story.
The book is obviously very well researched as well, perhaps even a little too well. There are several sections devoted to sniping and the techniques and equipment that go along with it. Even for someone like me with a genuine interest in the military I found it a little boring, though I imagine it will appeal to some.
I have to say, I was finding this book hard going until I reached the last 50 pages and then, suddenly I couldn't put it down. The showdown between the major characters and a shocking twist really made this book for me and show that "action" isn't always necessary for a page-turning, un-put-downable reading experience. If you get the chance to read this book do, but don't expect too much until near the very end, that way you won't be disappointed.
Gus Peake should have kept his job and stayed at home, but an old family debt of friendship draws him to the remote wastes of Northern Iraq and to a savage forgotten war between Kurdish guerillas and Saddam Hussein's military strength.