Novel: Red London by Alma Katsu

If there were any doubts after Red Widow that Alma Katsu wasn’t the real-deal in spy fictionRed London (2023) should put them squarely to rest. This sequel brings back all the elements that made the first volume succeed, but pushes them into a new milieu to reinvent the series and keep it fresh. In an unexpected turn, CIA officer Lyndsey Duncan—who spent the first book with her career on the semi-skids—has been reassigned overseas to England, there to serve as handler for an important new Russian asset. But it turns out there are other Russians in London, including expatriate oligarch Mikhail Rotenberg, who has just survived an assassination attempt that has Russian fingerprints all over it. Both MI6 and the CIA are anxious to locate Rotenberg’s illicit fortune, and since Rotenberg has fallen out with Russia’s newly minted dictator, the clock may be ticking. Enter Lyndsey, enlisted by her old flame Davis to go undercover on a dangerous assignment: to befriend and exploit Rotenberg’s English wife Emily, and perhaps turn her against her nefarious husband. But Emily has her own problems protecting her young children from their abusive father, and Rotenberg’s increasingly tenuous political situation quickly turns Lyndsey’s assignment into a precarious one.

Red London not only confidently builds out a new world for Lyndsey to inhabit, but fleshes out her life, as her new job thrusts her back into the orbit of several professional colleagues, including the man who derailed her career. But while Lyndsey remains an appealing protagonist, the sequel is impressive for two other feats. One is that once again, Katsu hasn’t just written a spy novel with a female protagonist, but a distinctly feminist spy novel. While Red Widow focused on the professional sexism Lyndsey and her work friend-slash-target Theresa Warner experienced in the intelligence world, Red London centers Emily, a woman with a decidedly different issue: coping with the misogyny, abuse, and gaslighting of her ruthless husband. In a genre where “strong female protagonist” usually translates into “loose cannon woman kicking ass,” this is a refreshing upgrade. The second achievement is the speculative way Katsu adjusts her plot in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a mid-draft pivot that pushes the story into an alternate, post-Putin universe which nonetheless copes with the complications of our own. It’s a gutsy move, well executed, and could interestingly shape the series to come. Overall, it’s a compelling, authentic spy narrative that has quickly pushed this author onto my spy-fi A list.

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