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State of Terror

October 22, 2021

I just finished reading the Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton thriller State of Terror and boy, I’m telling you, it’s a ride. My friend in Toronto advised me not to read it too late into the evening, because he knows I’m prone to nightmares. My first reaction on finishing it, though, was grief. Grief for the country I imagined back when I was excited to vote for a woman as president, grief for what has happened since, and grief for consequences still to come.

Your reaction may be different but one thing will probably be the same for everyone who picks up this book—make some time, because it’s a page-turner.

The terrors are fictional but all-too-plausible, especially when Ellen, the Secretary of State, explains why U.S. national intelligence services have no information about two bombs that have just exploded on two different busses in two major European cities:
“The former administration screwed up everything it touched. It poisoned the well, poisoned our relationships. We’re the leader of the free world in name only. That effective intelligence network you’re so proud of no longer exists. Our allies distrust us. Those who’d do us harm are circling. And we let it happen. We let them in. Russia. The Chinese. That madman in North Korea. And here, in the administration, in positions of influence? And even the lower-level workers? Can we really trust that they’re doing a good job?”
“Deep State,” said the Director of National Intelligence.
Ellen rounded on him. “It’s not depth we need to worry about, it’s width. It’s everywhere. Four years of hiring, of promoting, of rewarding people who’d say and do anything to prop up a deranged President has left us vulnerable.”

The bad guy, though, is no Assad, Al-Qurashi, or Kim Jong Un. “He wasn’t just bad, or wicked, as her grandmother might have said. Bashir Shah was evil. Intent on creating a Hell on earth.” And what he is attempting to achieve, in this thriller, is the detonation of three nuclear bombs on U.S. soil. Released from house arrest in Pakistan with the blessing of a previous U.S. administration during the period between the presidential election and the inauguration of a new president, Shah has been at large for months before anyone in the U.S. finds out about his release. (The president who lost the election is called “Eric Dunn” in this book.) But it’s not just the release of one bad guy that has the Americans worried. It’s a series of “decisions that appear unrelated but are, in fact, interlocked. To withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear accord, to take the troops out of Afghanistan without a plan and therefore ensure terrorists get back in on the coattails of the Taliban, and to release Shah.”

There are a couple of almost entirely gratuitous appearances by Louise Penny characters; at one point Ruth Zardo’s poetry is mentioned, and at another Gamache and a US General meet to help save the world and fondle the ears of each others’ dogs.

The puppetmaster behind Bashir Shah’s plans turns out to be Maxim Ivanov, a thinly disguised Putin character who holds the reins of the Russian mafia and through them, Al Queda, the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. And it turns out that Americans are helping to destroy their own country, led by a group of powerful people who are
“disaffected with government. With the direction of the country. With changes in the culture. Having what they see as real American values eroded and disappearing. These aren’t just decent conservative people who miss the way it once was and want it back. These are ultra-right extremists. Fascists. White supremacists, militias. They feel the United States is no longer America, so they don’t feel they’re being disloyal.”

The villain, Bashir Shah, gets to lecture the American Secretary of State about what she has missed:
“While you were looking outward, scanning the horizon for threats, you missed what was happening in your own backyard. What was taking root right here, on American soil. In your towns, your shops, in your heartland. Among your friends, in your families. The sensible conservatives moving to the right. The right moving far right. The far right becoming alt-right. Become, in their rage and frustration, radicalized thanks to an internet filled with crazy theories, false ‘facts,’ and smug politicians allowed to spew lies.”

That’s what makes this book so terrifying, how plausible it is. You might not want to read it too late into the night.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2021 4:25 am

    Great review, and yes, it sounds way too scarily real!

    • October 24, 2021 1:19 pm

      Let’s hope it stays in the “plausible” category and not the “prescient” one.

  2. October 25, 2021 11:44 am

    I’m not sure this one is for me. Probably too political, although I can recognize Louise Penny’s writing style in the excerpts and I love her Three Pines/Armand Gamache books!

    • October 25, 2021 11:53 am

      I don’t know if I’d call it political, but the afterward does say that it’s one of three scenarios they discussed that keeps the former Secretary of State up at night. I also like the part where they thank Bill Clinton for consulting on what a president would and wouldn’t do in certain situations.

  3. October 25, 2021 3:53 pm

    I hadn’t really planned on reading this but now I might! It sounds thrilling but also all too scarily real. It helps to know what I’m getting into.

    • October 25, 2021 3:55 pm

      l think it’s worth reading, but as my friend said to me, try not to read it too late into the night.

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