Perhaps best known for his work in sci-fi universes such as Star Trek and Warhammer 40k, James Swallow’s latest novel Nomad is a standalone title, a global spy thriller featuring a betrayed MI6 agent fighting to survive and clear his name. Marc Dane, a MI6 support agent used to a role away from the line of fire, finds himself the sole survivor of his team as they investigate a lead on a terrorist attack only to walk into a deadly trap. With the blame for the disaster laid at his feet he soon finds himself on the run, on a desperate mission to expose the real traitor in MI6’s ranks and prevent an even worse act of global terrorism.
So far so Bourne, but Dane stands out as an unusual action hero – more comfortable using his brain than his fists, he finds himself constantly out of his depth and surviving largely down to his quick wits and a large dose of luck. Driven by a desire to find the men who killed his team, and an underlying sense of unhappiness at how his life has turned out, he’s as close to an everyman as possible while still having impressive survival skills and technical know-how. Swallow gives him depth and relatability, from his geek-OCD knowledge of technical specs to a backstory complete with family disputes and missed opportunities, and he turns out to be both a compelling protagonist and an excellent foil for the more traditional spy story supporting cast of allies and enemies.
Dane’s enemies are legion, from the MI6 witch hunter out for his blood to the cold and calculating footsoldiers of The Combine, a shadowy group of arms dealers selling weapons to terrorists who seem to have infiltrated every national intelligence agency around. It’s the terrorists themselves who provide the real weight to the story though, ruthless zealots prepared to do anything to further their goals – including the use of vulnerable, indoctrinated children as horrifying, unwitting suicide bombers. The stakes are as high as might be expected in terms of what they plan to do, but Swallow gives us an inside look at what they’re doing which humanises the sacrificial lambs and adds real emotional heft to the story.
Breathless and thrilling, sharply plotted and almost painfully topical, it’s a gripping story that does everything a spy thriller should. It draws heavily on the classics of the genre, and occasionally veers into predictable territory, but there’s plenty here to enjoy for fans of a good old spy story. Add in an unusually powerful look at the individual, human cost of the terrorists’ methods, and it’s a recipe for an absolutely cracking read. It might be a standalone novel at the moment but this is ripe for opening up a worthy new series – hopefully there’s more where this came from.