David Ignatius is quite an accomplished journalist and novelist. He focuses on spy thrillers, of which I’ve read two now - The Director about a newly appointed CIA Director in a time of crisis; and his latest, The Quantum Spy, also about the CIA, this time focusing on a technology race between China and the United States. Ignatius knows where to find his material - as a 30 year veteran of The Washington Post, he covers politics and is well respected in the community, providing him access to some credible advisors.
The Quantum Spy focuses on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Deputy Director John Vandel and agent Harrison Chang. They want to protect U.S. scientific development of one of the most important technology advances in history - quantum computing, which can process data millions of times more quickly than existing computing capabilities - and thwart efforts of the Chinese spy agencies to intercept any growth in the technology’s progress.
Quantum computing and its development is real, so the subject is certainly intriguing. Ignatius just scratches the surface of what it is and what the potential could mean to both the private and public sectors, and that’s just enough for this novel. It’s a race for sure and its implications astounding. Governments around the world are striving for the early advantage.
Harrison Chang is chosen by Vandel for this particular mission for two reasons: Chang is a former Army Ranger who saved Vandel’s life in Iraq, and he’s American of Chinese descent. Chang is quite proud of his very American accomplishments - high school football star, West Point graduate, Army veteran, and now a CIA agent - it’s the American dream. And he seems to be quite good at working over his targets; getting them to cave under pressure and give up valuable information. In doing so, he uncovers a “rukou” - a Chinese doorway into the heart of U.S. intelligence. In other words, there is a mole feeding the Chinese with information about highly classified quantum computing programs that have gone “dark” and are operating under one of the U.S. three letter agencies.
Vandel assembles a small team working covertly even within the CIA. Their mission is to not only ferret out the mole, but to wreck havoc within the Chinese intelligence community. He sends Chang as his frontman to stir the pot - and it works. Chang darts across the country from Langley to San Francisco, to Vancouver and Mexico City. Meanwhile, the Chinese Minister of State Security has his own problems - the Ministry is falling apart due to corruption, the People’s Liberation Army Generals have competing interests, and he has to protect his most important asset and trump card, the “rukou”.
It’s a fun ride and an easy read. Like many journalists turned novelist though, Ignatius writes like a reporter. Clearly successful, it works for him. It’s a great subject though written for someone looking for lightweight fiction. My biggest issue was once again his treatment of a leading female character. Denise Ford is portrayed as a smart, smooth, and clever operative, though she makes some ridiculous mistakes. Ignatius did this in The Director as well. I just can’t reconcile the set up of these characters as strong and dominating, yet actions and dialogue so foolish. To be fair, the dialogue overall was not too imaginative.
If you like quick spy stories, this is a good one. Look elsewhere for literary mastery.
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Vickie’s rating: 3 stars