book review: liar's candle

Liar's Candle by August Thomas
Scribner, 320 pp.
Published April 17, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this book from Scribner via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Penny Kessler, an intern at the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, wakes up in a hospital on the morning of July 5th to find herself at the center of an international crisis. The day before, the Embassy was the target of a devastating terrorist attack that killed hundreds of Penny’s friends and colleagues. Not only has a photograph of Penny as she emerged from the rubble become the event’s defining image, but for reasons she doesn’t understand, her bosses believe she’s a crucial witness.

Suddenly, everyone is intensely interested in what Penny knows. But what does she know? And whom can she trust? As she struggles to piece together her memories, she discovers that Zach Robson, the young diplomat she’d been falling for all summer, went missing during the attack. And one of the CIA’s most powerful officials, Christina Ekdahl, wants people to believe Zach was a traitor.

What actually happened?

Penny barely has time to ask before she discovers that her own government wants her dead. Soon, with only a single ally—a rookie intelligence officer fresh out of the Navy—she is running a perilous gauntlet, ruthlessly pursued by Turkey’s most powerful forces and by the CIA.

To survive, Penny must furiously improvise. Tradecraft takes a lifetime to master. She has less than thirty-six hours. And she’s only twenty-one years old. This is her first real test—one she can’t fail.
Although it falls into that torturous stretch between spring break and summer vacation, Liar's Candle distinguishes itself at the perfect beach read. Thomas maintains a breakneck pace with almost no reprieve: you could easily breeze through this novel in one marathon sitting. And although the action relies on the tenuous stability and roiling political undercurrents of modern day Turkey, it doesn't get distracted by manifestos. Stories like this are often underrated because they're content with the pure and simple entertainment of a reader. Personally I love thrillers that don't try to impress you with how clever they are or wrap up a deeper message inside their twists! In the spirit of unadulterated entertainment, I'm going to leave you with the top five reasons you should read Liar's Candle the next time you want a quick escape:

1. The main character, Penny Kessler, is a believable badass.

Penny has no special training, no innate skills, and no interest in espionage. She starts out as an average college-age intern and that's how she finishes her adventure as well. So often in these situations, the main character "discovers" latent talents that magically help them survive. Instead, Penny gets by with what she already has: fluency in Turkish, determination, and a fierce belief in the value of truth. She may benefit from a few spots of luck as well, but overall I was really pleased that Thomas stayed faithful to the idea of an average girl navigating an unimaginable situation.

2. Her partner, the rookie intelligence officer, is a gay man with defining characteristics other than his sexuality.

Connor, an undercover intelligence officer who gets tangled up in the aftermath of the embassy attack, is gay. And even though the professional impact of his coming out is touched upon—particularly the reaction from fellow soldiers and how a superior uses it to manipulate him into obedience—Connor gets development far beyond his sexuality. He's a patriot, clever and pragmatic, with a dry sense of humor that buoys some of the darker moments. His caution serves as the perfect foil to Penny's fervor; when the plot turns toward the theatrical he keeps it tethered to reality. The conspiracy at the center of Liar's Candle may find resolution, but I would happily read another book about Connor's exploits.

3. Everything unfolds over a day and a half, similar to a season of 24.

The compressed time frame helped keep the action at a fever pitch throughout Liar's Candle. Characters race from Ankara to the Syrian border to Istanbul, all over little more than a day. Between Penny's search for Zach and the truth about the embassy bombing, and the frantic damage control by conspirators at home and abroad, there's barely a moment to breathe. Compulsively readable, Liar's Candle shapes up as the perfect vacation read, whether you're stuck at the airport or lounging on the beach!

4. While you may predict a couple of the twists (I know I did) you're guaranteed to be surprised at least once.

When I had correctly guessed a couple of the early reveals, I worried that Liar's Candle might be too obvious to hold much entertainment value. Needless to say, several of the later twists I either only half-guessed correctly or missed completely! The plot falls into that perfect middle ground between oversimplified and unnecessarily convoluted. Thriller aficionados might not be utterly captivated throughout, but for readers who aren't as deeply steeped in the genre and its conventions, Liar's Candle provides plenty of twists and thrills without tying your mind in knots.

5. Thomas' writing style sucks you in and won't let go—perfect for a political thriller!

No matter how carefully plotted, a thriller can fall apart if an author's style simply doesn't complement the action at hand. Thomas accommodates it perfectly, doling out information in a simple, accessible style. Most of the narrative color is reserved for descriptions of Turkish locales, locals, and culture; Thomas studied Turkish and lived in Istanbul as a Fulbright scholar, clearly developing an affection for the country. (The untranslated Turkish scattered throughout Liar's Candle was a little annoying, although that may change between review copies and the final print.) Her prose paints a vivid picture of the setting without getting in the way of plot points.

One of the better thrillers I've read recently, Liar's Candle works well as a stand-alone...but I can't help but hope that we'll be treated to more of Penny and Connor in the future!


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