From Within the Firebird’s Nest by Sheldon Charles is a timely story of simmering grudges from the Cold War era carrying over into America’s conflicts with international terrorism.
The story centers around the Crimson Firebird Initiative, a secretive Soviet bioweapons program controlled by a rogue ex-KGB agent. The novel follows the efforts of Evan Davis, an American novelist, along with a former Stasi officer and various other intelligence agents, to stop the abandoned, but still deadly program from reawakening. Meanwhile, Abi, a genius Palestinian boy living in London, is also working to uncover the programs secrets, while at the same time being slowly indoctrinated into a terror cell with promises of avenging his murdered father.
Sheldon Charles, an Air Force veteran, knows his stuff and it shows. With the notable exception of the apocalyptic killer virus that is part of Crimson Firebird, the story remains mostly grounded in the real world, which is to its credit. There are no high speed car chases or fistfights on top of airplane wings. The most effective parts of the novel are when Charles describes Abi and other characters’ attempts to decode the absurdly intricate codes and hidden messages being transmitted to sleeper agents by “numbers stations,” mysterious radio transmissions consisting of strings of seemingly random numbers.
Although the novel is ostensibly an Evan Davis story (Evan is a recurring character from Charles’s previous work), it’s also very much an ensemble piece, following characters from the other side of the Iron Curtain, as they attempt to toe the line between loyalty, family, and their own personal morals. Many of these characters operate in a moral gray zone, and it’s not always immediately clear where some of their loyalties lie, making these moments in the novel some of the most nuanced and interesting. Abi’s story is particularly tragic, and it’s easy to empathize with his struggle, while also recognizing the growing threat he might pose. This is a tricky balance for Charles to maintain, and he does so exceptionally well.
Charles tends to jump around chronologically in the first half of the book, which helps keep the pacing brisk and exciting, but there are enough context clues that it’s always clear where and when we are in the timeline. The novel eventually builds to a frenetic pace towards its conclusion, although this energy stagnates somewhat in a few puzzling scenes where characters have little to do but wait and eat breakfast. Otherwise, Charles weaves all of his various subplots into a satisfying conclusion.
There is one notable romantic subplot that can’t help but seem clunky next to the espionage elements. Too many scenes involving characters of the opposite sex in the same room tend to descend into over-the-top flirting and and cliche euphemisms. It feels, as Evan Davis would put it, too “Hollywood” for the more grounded world Charles otherwise portrays. Otherwise, the story is finely tuned and engrossing.
Ultimately, From Within the Firebird’s Nest is a worthy read, especially for those interested in a realistic spy thriller that combines hidden conspiracies with a web of complex characters from different cultural backgrounds. It’s a lot for Charles to handle, but he deftly blends all of these elements together in this well-executed thriller.
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