The second book in the Rubicon series, James Swallow’s Exile returns to the story of Marc Dane after the success of his bestselling Nomad. Set six months or so after the events of Nomad, it sees Dane working for the UN’s Division of Nuclear Security in Croatia as an analyst and chafing at the restrictions of his desk-bound role. After his superiors refuse to act on intelligence he’s gathered and he unsuccessfully takes things into his own hands, he turns to his contacts in the Rubicon Group to follow the trail of a piratical African warlord with a portable nuclear device.
The book’s title refers to two things – the name given to the Russian-built bomb, and Dane’s self-imposed state having left MI6 and turned down employment with Rubicon in favour of a frustrating life as an unwanted, damaged asset. Rather than take the expected path, Swallow bravely, and to good effect, is taking his time with the flow of the series. He shows Dane as still hurting, and resisting the pull of life as a field agent, unwilling to take that next step. There’s a sense of inevitability about it all, especially once the familiar Rubicon team all return to the picture, but it’s nice to see Dane given the time to keep developing.
Dane’s overall arc might be taking it slow, but this book certainly isn’t. Kicking off with a similar prologue to Nomad, which introduces the antagonist Ramaas and his cronies, it quickly throws Dane into the action as he goes behind his bosses’ backs to act upon crucial intelligence, trusting his gut over his colleagues’ bureaucracy. From that point onwards it’s typically breathless, as Dane – and subsequently Rubicon – try to chase down Ramaas, who’s always a step or two ahead. Ruthless and driven, Ramaas is a delightfully intimidating bad guy, equal parts feverish zealot and rational strategist, and similarly to Nomad’s Omar Khadir he provides a scarily real threat. Dane and co. chase him halfway around the world, enlisting some unorthodox help along the way that nicely ties the story back into Nomad, with plenty of explosive action before the inevitable, epic conclusion to the story.
Despite the globetrotting and the high tech gadgetry, this remains remarkably grounded (for an action thriller), definitely more Bourne than Bond. It’s got all the hallmarks of the best thrillers – pace, action, a compelling threat and a sense of impending danger, but it retains a modernity and a sense of relevance that not all thrillers manage, and treads a path nicely between over-glamorous style-over-substance and depressingly gritty over-realism. Dane might not be a Bond-style iconic hero, but he’s much more human and believable for that. The very fact he has to scrape through each mission, surviving on his wits and a healthy dose of luck, makes him a relatable and sympathetic character, and gives the story a great sense of tension. It’s another excellent book from Swallow that builds upon Nomad and suggests that the Rubicon series is going to become something quite special.