Clinton and Penny’s ‘State of Terror’ catapults a powerful woman into risk-taking

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny’s “State of Terror” and Ken Follett’s “Never” imagine high-stakes situations where women take risks. 

Simon & Schuster/St. Martin’s Press, Viking

What if nuclear weapons fell into terrorists’ hands? Two new books written by three big names grapple with the outcome of this unsettling question via the pulse-racing, globe-spanning, deal-making genre of the political thriller. While both stories probe issues of power, partnership, and trust, they weave their tales – and reach their conclusions – in quite different ways.

“State of Terror,” co-written by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Canadian bestselling mystery writer Louise Penny, begins  aboard the wryly dubbed Air Force Three with Ellen Adams. A former media magnate in her late 50s, Ellen now serves as secretary of state in the newly elected administration of Doug Williams. 

Early in the story, crisis strikes. Bus bombs explode, first in London and then in Paris. An anonymous code received by Washington-based foreign service officer Anahita Dahir points to a third imminent attack that sends Ellen, her staff, members of the National Security Council, and U.S. allies into overdrive.

The high-stakes efforts to find the perpetrators and prevent subsequent violence, including an even larger plot on American soil, make for rapid reading. Ellen deftly proposes, plans, and pivots, while navigating a murky political landscape in Washington and icy relations with her counterparts in Pakistan, Iran, and Russia. 

Never far from Ellen’s side stands her counselor and longtime best friend Betsy Jameson, who brings warmth, smarts, and humor to the story. The women’s bond and banter are a highlight of the book.  

“State of Terror” pulses with the clever asides and turns of phrase that delight Penny’s fans (and there are surprise appearances to boot). But this is its own story. The writing duo’s well-crafted thriller doesn’t shy from profanity and sharp political stabs as it hurtles to its breathless finale.

“Never,” the latest book from prolific and award-winning British author Ken Follett, also takes readers into an escalating geopolitical nightmare. The story opens with U.S. President Pauline Green, a moderate Republican in her third year, touring an underground emergency bunker. It’s an ominous trip that spooks Pauline, reminding her “we still live on the edge.”

Follett’s tale proceeds to creep toward that edge via storylines that, at first, seem far-flung and unrelated. Under the blazing sun in Chad, dedicated CIA officer Tamara Levit works alongside undercover operative Abdul John Haddad and French EU mission attaché Tab Sadoul to expose jihadi drug- and people-smuggling operations. The characters cross paths with Kiah, a pragmatic young mother and widow desperate to flee the drought and violence in her village. 

The setting then shifts to Beijing where progressive Chang Kai, vice minister of China’s international intelligence agency, scrutinizes the moves of allies and enemies alike while contending with hot-shot peers and elder bureaucrats angling for favors, position, and power.  

Subsequent attacks in Chad – plus rebellion in North Korea – spark heated exchanges and saber rattling, plus increasingly violent face-saving maneuvers, between the superpowers behind the scenes: the U.S. and China.

A doorstop of a book at 800 pages, Follett’s story captivates but at times loses emotional steam. This is matter-of-fact writing that’s heavier on plot and pacing than on the characters’ interior lives. 

As the tit for tat between the two superpowers explodes, the tenuous nature of brinkmanship becomes clear. Governments are people, Follett stresses, with their biases, mistakes, and misdeeds. Needed to counter such peril are individuals willing to risk reputation, limb, and sometimes life for a good greater than party or country.

Both “Never” and “State of Terror” portray individuals willing to take these risks. Refreshingly, many are women, who, like Ellen, are “in a position to no longer just talk about change, but bring it about.”

“State of Terror” opens with a quote from a real-world former policy adviser: “The most amazing thing that has happened in my lifetime ... is that in the 75 years, 7 months, and 13 days since Nagasaki, a nuclear bomb has not been detonated.” By the end of both novels, readers may well rub their bulging eyes, sit back, and wholeheartedly agree.

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