I’ve enjoyed reading several of Henry Porter’s novels (my review of his second book, A Spy’s Life is here). They are solidly plotted, full of action with great lead characters. His latest, Firefly, has a great tagline on the front cover of my ARC, ‘The prey – a boy genius. The predator – a deadly assassin.’ Once I started reading Firefly I couldn’t put it down, and sped through it’s 470 pages in one extended reading session. I had to know what happened to the boy who is at the crux of the story…
Luc Samson, an ex-spook who now does private work for rich clients, is persuaded by MI6 to use his unique skills and experience to help them find a refugee boy. The boy, Naji, whom they codenamed Firefly, was rescued from a capsized dinghy crossing the Med from Turkey to Greece. They believe he has information on an IS terrorist cell who have committed many atrocities, but he has run away from the refugee camp. The terrorists are now on his trail. Luc, a Lebanese refugee and Arabic speaker himself, who has recently worked in Syria, is the man for the job. Luc has no love for MI6, but finds himself totally bound up in the boy’s future. There is danger, plus twists and turns aplenty as we follow the refugee trail into the Balkans. Up until now, Naji, has been lucky – can Luc get to him before that luck runs out?
Naji is an unusual teenager. He is clever and a grafter, taking on the role of provider for his family after his father was broken by the IS terrorists. Naji speaks English thanks to his educated parents, and has learned to repair mobile phones. It’s this skill that brings him to the attention of Al-munajil, the leader of the group, and Naji finds himself in a nigh on impossible situation. He flees and ends up nearly drowning in the Mediterranean, but survives on in the camp on Lesbos, where psychologist Anastasia takes an interest in him. But as soon as she is beginning to get him to open up, Al-munajil and his henchmen turn up, and he must escape them again. He hopes to reach safety, then bring his beloved sisters and mother over too.
Given the ongoing refugee crisis, this is a timely novel. Once on the trail moving up through Greece to the Macedonian mountains towards Serbia on foot, Porter shows how dangerous this trek is for the refugees, let alone a fourteen-year-old boy with deadly assassins on his tail. Naji proves he has resilience and resourcefulness time and time again but in this cat and mouse chase danger is always close for the youngster on his own. Luc has a hard job to keep up with his movements and as for approaching the boy, he will need his sister Munira’s help, Anastasia’s too.
RIght from the start you care for Naji, he’s somewhat of an Aladdin-type character, instantly lovable. But this is no pantomime, the atrocities carried out by Al-munajil and his men are laid out on the page and make for extremely nasty reading. As for Luc, he is complex and yet straight-forward in Porter’s characterisation of him; Anastasia, as you may guess, provides the well-handled spark of romance. Leavening the violence and plight of the refugees slightly though, is one brilliantly portrayed, yet militarily efficient, character. In Macedonia, Luc is given help by Vuk Divjak:
Vuk’s walk fascinated Samson. The Serb moved with a kind of regretful determination, like a farmer on his way to slaughter his favourite pig – fists clenched, eyes averted and lost in a strange, angry sadness.
‘What’s up?’ said Samson.
‘Nothing up – everything down. Life is bitch.’
That’s one of his utterances I could print!
There is also a distracting, yet again desperately awful, side-plot involving a billionaire whom Luc had been working for to trace his missing sister, a doctor in Aleppo, presumed kidnapped as an IS sex slave. When things turn awkward for Luc, Denis Hisami, steps into the breach to help. Maybe the world of the refugee trail in the Balkans is that small – but there were so many coincidences in people converging on each other and equally missing each other by yards, further links between plot elements too, which which admittedly upped the tension and added complexity, that the book felt just slightly contrived at times. However, these devices did help constrain the story a little, and that said, I thoroughly enjoyed this timely thriller. (9/10)
Source: Review copy
Henry Porter, Firefly (Quercus, June 2018) hardback, 470 pages. Paperback now out.
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