Book Review

Fault Line by Barry Eisler


Title: Fault Line
Author: Barry Eisler
Publication Info: Ballantine 2009
ISBN: 0345505085
Genre: Contemporary/Other

Book CoverWhen I saw the news on Twitter that Salon Magazine picked Barry Eisler’s Fault Line as a top book of 2009, I realized I’d been a complete slacker and hadn’t reviewed it, though I read the book in a gulping, cringing marathon of reading. I’ve been pondering books that have The Crack in them – you cannot put them down – and this was definitely one for me.

First, a few warnings. It’s not a romance, but it’s tense and packed with elements that are so realistically drawn that they could be possible – which is a key element in a thriller working for me. It’s just so outrageous in the revealing of the covert it could totally be possible.

Ben Treven is a covert badass. He’s described as an elite liaison or some other word with a lot of vowels in it, and really, the more vague the title, the better. He’s so far off radar, he’s completely disconnected from everything- including his brother, Alex. Alex is an attorney on the cusp of partnerdom, and his next deal could bring him that much-desired promotion. But when the key people are killed and Alex realizes something is very, very rotten in his personal Denmark, he breaks years of silence and distance to contact Ben and ask for his help. Sarah Hosseini, another attorney in Alex’s firm, finds herself involved as well, creating yet more imbalance between Alex and Ben.

The title is elegant in its multiple meanings: it could refer to the fault line between Ben and Alex, or it could refer to the instability and tremorous facts upon which the war on terror is based. It could simply refer to the line dividing the characters and who is at fault for what element of the past. Or it could be the epicenter of what shakes and breaks the protagonists and their worlds.

The two points that may trip up readers: first, it’s not a romance. While Eisler makes efforts to attract the romance reading audience to his books because there are strong women characters and emotional and sexual connections between key protagonists, this is not a romance. The female in question is not the center of the story, and doesn’t experience her own character growth or development. That said, Sarah’s role is not as a cypher or foil for the men, and she’s definitely NOT a Bond girl whose job is to look good in tight clothing. She’s not stupid, either, and matches intellect with both Ben and Alex.

The other point that is tripsome (is that a word? is now!) for some is Ben’s long, long periods of quiet and hiding in the beginning provide a lot of space for him to ruminate, and while some of his backstory is creepy and fascinating, all too often it becomes a political platform, or a giant infodump, or both.

The best part of the story is the story itself: it reveals in bites and pieces the history of Alex and Ben, of their shared past, and the major differences between them. But moreover, the intricacies of their relationship are realistic and not easily solved. While Sarah doesn’t have her own character arc and development, and that disappointed me, Ben and Alex aren’t going to hold hands and skip into the sunset – and that didn’t disappoint me at all. Sibling relationships are complex, especially when one sibling knows of eight ways to kill his brother with a nose hair and some toenail clippers. Alex and Ben are an emotional thriller, and the story itself grabs you and moves along so quickly it’s difficult to stop reading it.

The facts within the book, such as the methods of securing yourself as much as possible in a room or public area, and of evaluating a space for vulnerability and, basically, thinking like the bad guy, are based in reality, and that root in realism makes the rest of the story more powerful. Those scenes where Ben instructs Alex on the basics of keeping his ass alive and breaks Alex’s understanding of safety and how easy it is to make someone truly disappear are terrifying because all of what Ben reveals is so coldly simple.

Cast against that simple clarity is the political ruminations from Ben, and to a lesser extent Alex and Sarah – and because they are so highly subjective, and so far into one particular point of view, they contrast unevenly with the chilling factual neutrality of Ben’s lessons in how to avoid being dead. This is one of those occasions wherein knowing the author’s opinions can detract from my reading. I know Barry and think he’s spiffy as a person, and I read his Twitter feed. So when I read Ben’s ruminating inner thoughts, I couldn’t always tell if it was Barry or Ben I was listening to, and that confusion made the reading more difficult.

I think of books like this as gluey compulsive reads – you start and you can’t stop because the action and the plot move along so quickly, and the characters are so different as to be fascinating. I know Ben is the star of Eisler’s next book, and have read portions already. He is a complex and enigmatic character who could easily have a series built around him. Usually the violence is a dead stop for me (no pun intended) but Ben’s ambivalence and struggles with his occupation and his vocation created a space in which I as the reader was able to possibly understand the reasons and motivations, even as the acts themselves were abhorrent.

If you like thrillers, books with amazing technical gadgetry, battles of wits on a limited clock and truly visceral characters, this will not disappoint. I hope that the political criticism, the action, the intrigue and the emotional intricacy of the characters find better balance, but even being a step out of perfect time is minimal compared to the accomplishment of this book: I read about spies, violence, battle, and politics enmeshed within characters who were created with painful realism and could not stop reading. I don’t normally gravitate toward those subjects (ok, I do like spies and gadgets) but in this case, I will come back for more.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    I’m a huge fan of Eisler’s John Rain character, so it was fun to see him move in a new direction with new characters.  As you say, this book hooks you and pulls you in despite some flaws and that’s no small thing.

  2. 2
    Gennita Low says:

    I enjoy Eisler very much and highly recommend him. Also, for those who want to see a bit of romantic relationship, the John Rain series definitely has a slow-building one.

  3. 3
    S. W. Vaughn says:

    Oh, man, I loved this book. I’ve enjoyed Eisler’s Rain series, and I dare say Fault Line was even better. The characterization in this was wonderful. I’m so excited to hear there will be another Ben book!

    Thanks for the review. :-)

  4. 4
    Kelly says:

    I had noticed that Barry is in a lot of “romance” authors/reviewers tweet streams and that he went to RWA conferences.  I was wondering how his stories as thrillers connected him to romance.  Can you help me understand?

  5. 5
    Henofthewoods says:

    But what was the best book of 2009?

  6. 6
    Liz says:

    this book sounds absolutely amazing!  i hope the library in my hometown has it, so i can borrow it over Christmas break, otherwise it will end up being put off until June when classes are over (and when I will probably have forgotten about the book).

  7. 7
    marley says:

    yum! thanks

  8. 8
    Barry Eisler says:

    Sarah, I am seriously honored by the detailed, insightful, thoughtful review.  Wow!  Thank you.  And thanks for the kind words in the comments, folks—glad to know you’ve been enjoying the books.

    As to the question of what’s up with me and romance, it’s pretty simple:  over the years, I began to notice that a lot of the mail I’d get from woman readers would start with something like, “I don’t usually read this kind of book, but my husband raved about it so much that I gave it a try, and I loved it!”  So I started thinking, hmmm, the books are clearly being packaged for men, but women love them, too… so how do I meet more woman readers?

    And thus began my initiation into Romantic Times, a story of such salaciousness and debauchery that it would justify a post of its own…

    And then I read Sarah and Candy’s excellent, hilarious, and eye-opening book, “Beyond Heaving Bosoms” (which among other things qualifies as one of the best titles ever), and I started having extremely fun and enlightening conversations with Sarah and Jane Litte of Dear Author, and then I read Victoria Dahl’s wicked The Wicked West… and now I think I’m hooked.

    I know Sarah’s right that Fault Line isn’t a romance (it’s primarily a thriller, no doubt), and even if I thought she were wrong, I wouldn’t argue with her because, after all, she is a Smart Bitch and I’m new to romance.  But… I would point out that Sarah’s magic hoo-hah does have a powerful effect on Ben, and Ben’s Wang of Mighty Loving has a powerful effect on Sarah… and plus I think the sex scene is killer, too. ;)  So I think the book has what I’m increasingly recognizing as romance elements, which, as I become more conscious of them by hanging out with romance types, I’d like to play with more in my books.  Because I think the principles of great romance aren’t limited to romance—done right, they should enhance any story.

    Anyway, Sarah, thanks very much again for the kind words and the thoughtful review.  And everyone, please know that if you have any issues with the extremely intense sex scene in my forthcoming novel, Inside Out (June 29), it’s entirely Sarah’s and Jane’s faults.  I get all my dirty ideas from them.


  9. 9
    Alyssa says:

    I know Sarah’s right that Fault Line isn’t a romance (it’s primarily a thriller, no doubt), and even if I thought she were wrong, I wouldn’t argue with her because, after all, she is a Smart Bitch and I’m new to romance.  But… I would point out that Sarah’s magic hoo-hah does have a powerful effect on…

    *stops, has to go back and make sure she read that right, then abruptly realizes that the second reference is talking about the character named Sarah* …Oh! Okay.
    *continues reading*

  10. 10
    Kelly says:

    Barry – Thank you for responding to my question!  It’s awesome to see your interest in romance and using the elements for great romance to enhance your stories.  I think that’s wonderful! 

    Also, I too had to go back and check that the character’s name was Sarah and you were making very familiar remarks about SB Sarah.  It was really Ben’s “Wang of Mighty Loving”  (a phrase I hadn’t heard before but LOVE!) that gave me the clue I needed.

  11. 11
    Tae says:

    I”m another huge fan of Barry and his Rain books.  I even buy them and give them to friends who usually don’t read, but would love his type of stories.  I’m definitely looking forward to this, didn’t even know there was a new Eisler book out.

  12. 12
    AmandaG says:

    Love everything the author wrote in his comment.  Love that he stopped by to comment at all, especially considering he’s not a romance author.

  13. 13
    Jana Oliver says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book. Somehow I’d missed Mr. E had another out so I’ll be remedying my oversight. I love a well-crafted thriller (with a side order of sex).

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