Khyber Run

Khyber RunTitle: Khyber Run
Author: Amber Green
Publisher: Loose Id
Cover Artist: April Martinez
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: LGBT multicultural
Length: Novel (205 pdf pages)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A Guest Review by Feliz

Summary Review: From the first sentence onward, this story gripped me and pulled me in, and carried me far away to the land of rocks and wind, a land so forbidding, hard and proud that it created its inhabitants in its own picture.

The Blurb: In Afghanistan, all the easy answers are wrong and the best-laid plans don’t stand a chance. A tight-knit band of USMC scout-snipers, enraged when one of their number murders another, is hell-bent on seeing justice. They kidnap Zarak Momand, a burnt-out Navy hospital corpsman, and blackmail him to be their guide into Momand land and to find a loophole in nanawatai, the Afghan code of hospitality. They don’t tell him their target — a deserter — murdered Zarak’s estranged baby brother.

Zarak has lost touch with his brothers, his heritage, his religion, anything that might inspire true passion. Code-named Zulu and coerced to hunt down a deserter, he must navigate the ambiguities of fourth generation warfare, where there are no front lines and where the moral high ground shifts from situation to situation.

In the end, it’s just Zulu and Oscar, a sexually compelling cipher who embodies so much of the Pakhtun Way. But is Oscar’s rough passion a betrayal between brothers?

The Review: The last thing navy corpsman Zarak Momand remembers is being told that his youngest brother Ben has been killed in action. Next time he wakes up, he’s on an airplane on his way to Afghanistan with several dozen marines, fixed to his seat with duct tape,  he has a giant hangover (literally, since the plane goes upside down a few times) and a vomit bag duct-taped to his chin. Over the course of the next few hours Zarak realizes he has been outright kidnapped by a group of Special OP’s who need his knowledge of the local customs and conventions in order to catch a deserter who has taken refuge with the Momand khel, Zarak’s family clan. Once Zarak has agreed, more or less voluntarily, to join this Special OPs group, he becomes Zulu, as the other members of his group are also called by code names: Mike, the leader, Echo, the electronics wizard, and Oscar, a coder who had been the one to actually go out and get Zulu from the ship.

Right from the beginning, Zulu feels attracted to Oscar, a big, physically strong man, a Native American from the Tohono o’odham tribe. Their current life situation being not exactly gay-friendly makes  Zulu hide his feelings. A short while later, the Special OPs team encounters another group of marines, and Zulu engages in a short, secret sexual encounter with one of them. Returning from his tryst, he runs into Oscar, who obviously disapproves.  As the team heads out, hot on the trails of the deserter, Zulu begins to suspect that the tension between him and Oscar might be mutual, but his suspicion is only confirmed when an accident splits their party in half and leaves Oscar and Zulu alone to fulfill their task. Only then it’s also that Zulu learns the reason why they hunt Tango: the deserter is the one who killed Zulu’s little brother, Ben/ Bravo, who had once been a part of this team.

The realization changes Zulu. While before he was halfway content to be dragged along, Zulu now takes charge. He convinces Oscar of seeking out his clan,  the Momand khel, and ask for their to help to catch the deserter.   But once  Zulu has his brother’s murderer at his mercy, will he follow through with the ways of his native land and claim badal, blood vengeance? Or will he abide by the laws of his current home country and bring Tango up before a court?

Right from the beginning, this story throws the reader smack in the middle of events. Little is explained; the story, the environment and the characters unfold over the course of the story with background information only given through  Zulu’s memories which are strewn in. While this narrative style took a bit getting used to, it added to the overall engrossing reading experience. This story evoked an incredible intense sense of atmosphere and place. There are several scenes which aren’t really necessary to forward the plot, like the encounter with the handless spice dealer, the slave auction or the buzkashi game, but those scenes nevertheless add feeling and “vibe” to the setting. Likewise, the element of contrariness is used in advantage of the world building, the contrast between the seemingly medieval Afghan society and  the well-equipped Western troops delivered in a stark matter-of-fact, amazingly non-judgemental view through Zulu’s perception. And as for the locale – the author created vivid images with sparse  descriptions, not a word too much, and still a rough kind of poetic quality. Like this:

Prayers don’t need vocalization; only men do. But the coming of this dawn called for unsubdued praise. So I raised my own voice for the first time in months. Maybe a year. Maybe more. “La ilaha ilallah.”

The echoes mingled one line with the next. “La ilaha ilallah,” healing over my clumsy enunciation of the classical Arabic. There’s something manifestly right about liquid chants flowing over stark rock. “La ilaha ilallah.”

The same is true for charaterizations. Like when Zulu looks at a picture of Ben:

Sunlight spread around me. Ben had grown up well. His eyes were deep, but not hollow. His teeth were straighter than mine or Omar’s. If I’d never had my nose broken, I still wouldn’t have those even, balanced features. Some Bollywood actor playing me might look like this man.

My brother.

I think the key to loving this book or not is whether or not you’re able to  like or at least to relate to Zarak/Zulu. I did, apparently — for me, this character was brilliantly done.

Zulu is a captive between  two worlds.  His mother was an expatriate American teacher who married a Pakhtun man and was happy to live as an Afghan woman until her husband and oldest son were killed by the Soviets.  She then took her four surviving sons and returned to her native Pensacola (and how she achieved this is a remarkable adventure in itself, told in parts through flashbacks).

Uprooted from his native Afghanistan at an age when he had already internalised his forefather’s values and norms, Zulu was thrown into a foreign culture with rather diametrically opposed moral standards. But once he’s back in his native land, he finds his perceptions tainted by his Western education, which makes him a foreigner again. For Zulu, Oscar embodies everything he has ever held dear – honor, strength, maleness.  Oscar is the one who can give Zulu purchase, and might ultimately help him grow new roots.

Curiously enough, this story would have worked for me even without the romantic element as a classic action/adventure novel. Nevertheless, the passionate love scenes added depth to both heroes’ characters, and made the book round in a way I haven’t found in the latter. Those were two quintessential macho males at work  (even though it took Zulu a while to find his inner alpha 😉 ) Those aren’t men who talk about emotions or put their affection for each other in so much words. Nevertheless, they managed to communicate their feelings  so that by the end, I was utterly convinced of their commitment to each other.  Who wouldn’t like dark, brooding and handsome? Particularly when, like in Zulu’s and Oscar’s case, the hard crusts actually hide burning cores of passion. What could be more romantic?

This was a deeply engrossing book that took me right out of my everyday life and carried me far away to a place I’ve had a penchant for ever since reading “Kim” when I was little.  Highly recommended.

Author

Aside from owls, I love all kinds of birds, particularly the odd ones. Also dogs, Queen (the band), motorbikes and books.

13 comments

  • Hi Saga,

    I have just finished reading ”Khyber Run” and it is a five star book for me. I am still thinking about it two days later 🙂 the little details that percolate through e.g. – in the end when Blue says he will bring coffee and a halal breakfast the next morning and Zulu thinks it is years since he drank coffee and then you realise that it is Blue’s memory of Zulu when he was last in their lives…

    I read Zulu’s character as a man who thinks he has failed and the story as much as it is redemptive for him unpacks the why of that. It isn’t just a story about identify. So when he wakes up and hears Omar praying and ask’s if he is still a muslim it isn’t about religion per se but all about the role he took on as a small boy to be a father to his brothers with all the duties inherent in his cultural background that is implied by that. I read the lack of contact between him and his brothers as about that, his sense that he has failed them as he feels he did his family when the shuravi attacked. I also think the scenes in the shop with the handless man are not extraneous to the story but necessary so that in the end he can make a statement about who he is; we see an arc from what he thought about himself then to how he now knows himself now.

    I also absolutely bought into the not-talking much relationship between him and Oscar and the ending is an HEA for me.

    The world building in this contemporary story is superb and the prose as you instance in the exmaples above moved me because it was so right.

    I loved Amber Green’s ”Hunstman” series which is why I bought this book which ranks above those in the quality of the writing and subtlety of the story.

    I loved this so much I hoped it had been reviewed here and searched out the review so I could add my two cents worth.

    Thanks 😀

    Reply
    • Thank you for commenting, Merrian,
      it was interesting to read your thoughts. It were the little details that did it for me, too.

      Reply
  • It’s a very subtle story in some ways. I get the feeling that Zulu is kind of delusioned by life… he doesn’t have much to defend. But he still has a strong core of integrity and honesty, almost childlike.

    I loved how Amber used small things to show his problems with cultural diffrences, like how he easily gets embarassed by not being in control but also how he debates with himself to overcome that. Or how he reacts to the young soldier that openly speaks before his elders.

    Reply
  • Feliz
    Was I not right in recommending this book to you? I’m so proud of myself. LOL

    I’m very happy you enjoyed Khyber Run as much as you did and I will definitely be reading it soon.

    Great review!!!!!!

    Reply
    • Yeah, Boss…. :god: you know best… 😀

      Seriously, this was a great read, I’m sure you’ll like it too. You know my penchant for “honest” stories. This one hit all the right buttons for me.

      Reply
  • I liked this book a lot. I bow to the author for the courage, objectivity and compassion she showed in this book. Her prose is amazing.

    Still, something kept me from giving it all 5 stars. It’s hard for me to exp;ain it. It’s this certain disconnection between Zarak and the world, that was great for describing how he stands between the two cultures without belonging entirely to either of them, but which made it difficult for me to identify with him. Am I making any sense.

    Anyway, great book, possibly Amber Green’s best so far. I am certain it will be on every best book list for this year. I’m eagerly waiting to see what Green will offer us next. And, wonderful review, Feliz! 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Lady M,
      you’re making perfect sense. That’s exactly what I thought. If you can connect to Zulu, you’ll love the book, otherwise something’s going to miss.

      Reply
  • I think this book is on top of my 2011 list right now. Very fascinating read. I have no idea how culturally correct it is but you were definetely taken somewhere else.

    I love that the story felt gentle even though it delt with a grim reality. I also love the narrative voice, Zulu felt like a person with strong humanity even though I guess seeing him from the outside I would call him a fundamentalist. But he didn’t feel stiff or set in his way.

    From Zulu it felt like the strong code of behavior from when his youth was more like the the old Japanese way of dealing with each other and not always religious. More like an old tradition on how to deal with each other in a civil way. Ofcourse this code of behavior had changed with the war and time but I still loved to see him navigating with his integrity and decency in this war zone.

    Still there were instances when I felt the religion was important. One instance that caught me by suprise was when Zulu woke at the hospital and met Blue. One of the first things he asked was if he was still a Muslim, even before asking how he was or if he was happy. That caught me by suprise because up till then I never got the feeling that Zulu judged other people or how other people related to his religion.

    The other conversation that caught my eye is when Oscar tells Zulu that there was nothing between Ben and him. He never says he didn’t love him, he just says nothing could ever happen and he is not mixing the 2 brothers up and I believe both. I think Oscar had very little experience (read almost none) with other men.

    This book has one of the best ending dialogues I have read. 😀

    Some questions that remain… I wonder why Zulu decided to become a doctor? That must have taken a lot of effort. I also wonder how he lost contact with his brothers? They clearly knew where he was and family seemed so important.

    Reply
    • Hi saga, thanks for the comment. I don’t know about correctness from personal experience, but I’ve read about Punjab/ Hindukush a lot. What you mentioned is what Zulu calls pakhtunwali, the old way of the pakhtun, a tradition which is much older than islam.

      i think Zulu isn’t a doctor at all, but some kind of paramedic. He’d be an officer if he was a doctor.

      As i understand it, it was Zulu who cut off the connection to his brothers, this is why he didn’t have contact with them.

      Reply

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