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.
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.