Title: The Greenland Breach
Author: Bernard Besson (translated by Julie Rose)
Genre: thriller, political, international espionage
Standalone or series: I believe this is standalone but I could be wrong (I hope there is more to come)
Publisher: Le French Book
A cracking ice cap, rival multinationals, cutthroat espionage…
What does global warming really mean for geopolitics? Does it promise espionage and intrigue, economic warfare and behind-the-scenes struggles for natural resources? Author Bernard Besson, one of France’s top experts in economic intelligence, brings us this exciting tale, a very plausible vision of the near future combines with French freelance spies and Bond-like action.
The Arctic ice caps are breaking up. Europe and the East Coast of the Unites States brace for a tidal wave. Meanwhile, former French intelligence officer John Spencer Larivière, his karate-trained, steamy Eurasian partner, Victoire, and their bisexual computer-genius sidekick, Luc, pick up an ordinary freelance assignment that quickly leads them into the glacial silence of the great north, where a merciless war is being waged for control of discoveries that will change the future of humanity.
I have a confession to make. When I was first asked to read this book, I was certain I was going to hate it. Why? Because I absolutely hate preachy, greenie books that tell us we’re destroying the planet. I’ll even admit to being a bit of a climate change sceptic. But before you all stone me as some petrol-guzzling, meat eating heathen, I will say that it’s not that I don’t believe we need to look after our planet, and to protect it for future generations. It’s just that I’m a realist (or is that cynic). All that doom and gloom about the sky is falling I tend to view as climate change scientists desperate to keep their funding. After all, if they told us things weren’t as bad as they first expected, why would we continue to give them millions to study climate change? I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle (as it usually does in most things). I’m all for researching new energy efficient technologies, and for reducing our impact on the earth. I just don’t like being preached at.
So anyway, that was the state-of-mind I went into this book with. In fact, if truth be told, there were really only a handful of reasons I agreed to read it in the first place: 1 – part of the action took place in France, and I’m a total francophile. 2 – I was intrigued that Bernard Besson was a real life French spy. 3 – I was intrigued that the translator was both Australian, and had translated Victor Hugo’s classic masterpiece Les Miserables. 4 – It’s not everyday you get to read a book set in Greenland. If nothing else, I’d get to learn a bit more about a country I’d love to visit.
Why am I pointing out all the negatives I felt before reading it? Because I think knowing my pre-reading state-of-mind is important in judging how epic my end-of-reading state-of-mind is.
Simply put, I loved the book. I could not put it down, which is a welcome change for me these days.
The book opens with a massive bang. Greenland is dying right before the world’s eyes; a massive mile and a half deep chasm splitting the island continent in two. And in the midst of Greenland’s death throes, an assassin waiting in the ice with a sniper rifle.
By the time Besson introduced me to Loïc Le Guévenec, the captain of the Bouc-Bel-Air, a ship that has just been crippled by a massive tidal wave of ice and water, and then had the assassin not only shoot his targets but the team of sled dogs as well, I was well and truly gripped by the tale.
So here’s what I loved, and the few things I didn’t love as much.
The action was superb. I love multi-character books so really appreciated having the action unfold through multiple viewpoints. It carried you along, switching scenes and characters with flawless pace. For those who might struggle with rapid change, Besson did delineate each change with a location and time, so you knew you were getting a scene change (and therefore, a character change). Had the book just been told through John’s eyes, I don’t think I would have liked it anywhere near as much. Had Besson just chosen two or three characters, it still wouldn’t have the impact that his finished product does. Another thing I loved about the multi-character format: people I’d met earlier on who I thought weren’t important became vital players by the end. Not only are their multiple characters, there are also multiple plots and subplots, which in the end means more things to keep my interest piqued (I get bored so easily these days). The sex scene on the third and fourth page was a keen reminder this was a French novel translated into English. We’ve spent a fair bit of time in France, and one thing we learned early on – French TV is very sexual. We’d be watching family shows in the middle of the afternoon, only to see full frontal nudity or vivid sex scenes…
The science was simple and understated, which is kind of weird coming from me about a book that describes an entire continent dying! What I liked about Besson’s take on the science: he didn’t try to overwhelm the reader with facts to prove his theories beyond a shadow of a doubt. The scientists and the science were just part of the storyline and at times I even forgot it was about climate change because I got caught up in the rest of the action. If anything, Besson left me with more questions than answers – which for a sceptic is actually a good thing. I never really felt like he presented greenies as good, and everyone else as bad. In fact, some of the greenies did stuff just as questionable in their pursuit for change.
When I first read about Luc being bisexual, I rolled my eyes a little and wondered if he’d be the token gay thrown in just to be politically correct. I also thought he’d be more of the third wheel/sidekick type character to John and Victoire’s tight partnership. But Luc really did turn out to be one of the most interesting characters. He was such a naughty boy. He fell in and out of bed so much, they should have changed his label to trisexual – as in he’d try anything once. Of the Fermatown trio, I liked Luc the best. He was deeply ingrained in much of the action of the book and used his sexuality as a tool to get what he wanted. It actually made a refreshing change that the sidekick, rather than the super spy, got all the action between the sheets (It was also refreshing to read a story where the Americans weren’t the heroes that saved the world – but that’s probably only something a non-American understands). By the end of the book, I could completely understand why both men and women threw themselves at Luc. Heck, if he was real and I wasn’t married, I’d be tempted to throw myself at him!
The Greenland Breach is chock-a-block full of intrigue. You never knew who to trust or who had ‘pure’ motivations. The bad guys weren’t completely bad and the good guys weren’t completely good. Rather they all had their reasons for doing what they did. I love books like that – where the author doesn’t tell you how you should feel about the characters but allows you to come to your own conclusions. I also love characters that are multi-faceted rather than one dimensional. There was also a healthy dose of sexual politics going on, particularly Isabelle Le Guévenec, Connie Rasmussen, and Luc. Mind you, at no time did I feel the sexuality dominated the book. It was more a subtle undertone that, in true French fashion, didn’t even try to differentiate between good and bad. There were no judgements made or scarlet letters issued.
While being a spy novel with some completely over the top action scenes, Besson still maintained some realism to his heroes. Take John for instance. When he first goes to Greenland, the locals give him a very heavy-handed welcome that includes a full internal inspection! Now I don’t think James Bond was ever subjected to one of those!
Despite the fact that Besson describes a Greenland in its dying throes, he still managed to describe it with enough love and passion to make me want to go and visit. I like books that inspire me to travel and visit new places.
One of my biggest complaints, at least early on in the book, was finding a character I could connect to. The action was big and bold, the pacing brilliant, the descriptions flawless. But I just didn’t feel there was a character I could really champion. By the end, I had found plenty to connect with, including my favourites: Luc, Le Guévenec, Connie Rasmussen (though I flipped between hating her and loving her), and John.
Early in the first chapter, the author described John Spencer Larivière as a five foot eleven gentle giant. Hmm, don’t know about France, but in Australia, that’s a very average height. My 16 year old son is almost 6 foot, my husband 6 foot 3, my daughter’s partner 6 foot 4, his father 6 foot 5, and my best friend’s son almost 7 foot! In fact, my daughter is 5 foot 9 – only 2 inches off John’s giant status!
Throughout the book, I really struggled to like Victoire. There was just something in her character that irked me, and I can’t even put a finger on it. It wasn’t until she extricated herself from a very tricky situation (yes, I’m being deliberately vague) that I gained an appreciation for her. I’m not a fan of damsels in distress, so the fact that she saved herself earned her some big brownie points (and a few shocked expletives from me). She did get marginally better after that, but I still didn’t find her the most likeable character.
There were a couple of eye-rolling coincidences, common to all spy novels, that were just too convenient and plot driven. Like the phone John was given by his employer that allowed him to listen in on conversations the employer’s daughter was having. How is it that every time John remembered to listen in, he overheard an important detail? In real life, I’m sure he would have overheard her order a pizza, make an appointment with her doctor, maybe arrange to meet up with friends for a coffee… But in spy-town, John had the good luck to only hear the juicy stuff. Then there was John dreaming about a guy trying to kill him in the exact way the guy was trying to kill him…
The big family secret reveal at the end of the book was a little too Days of Our Lives meets Bold and the Beautiful for my liking but it was such a small part that I can forgive Besson for going there.
Besson managed brilliant pace throughout the novel. If I had even the slightest complaint about pace, it was actually in the translation. Don’t get me wrong – there was nothing wrong with it. I didn’t pick up any obvious flaws in the translation itself. It’s just that language – whether French or English or otherwise – has a natural rhythm and flow. I’m sure Besson had that rhythm when he wrote this in French, but there were moments where the natural rhythm was lost in English; where the sentences (while perfectly translated) had lost some of their poetic prose. This was only in the beginning, when I was still getting a feel for the characters and storyline. In fact, by the end, the translation had all but receded into the background.
Another thing I noticed more early on was the effect on flow the French words had. For example, where John, Luc, and Victoire walked back to Fermatown via the Rue Deparcieux, which was parallel to the Rue Fermat. I know rue is the French word for street. In fact, I speak a little French myself. I just have to wonder whether it wouldn’t have made a more cohesive translation (for those who speak absolutely no French at all) to just call it Fermat Street. Or to take it a step further, to call Luc and Victoire Luke and Victoria. There were lots of instances of French words that could have been put in English. However that is just me being incredibly picky.
There was nothing ugly for me to comment on. Even the things I didn’t like did not stop me loving the book overall.
At the end of the day, this was a very good book and one I hope gets picked up by Hollywood and made into a movie. While I still remain a sceptic of the doom and gloom predictions, there is no taking away from the breakneck drama and intensity of The Greenland Breach. All in all, it is a book I highly recommend to anyone looking for a book they won’t be able to put down.