Recently released e-book Smokescreen from first-time author Khaled Talib is an espionage thriller with a certain difference: it’s set, perhaps unusually, in Singapore, where womanising Eurasian journalist Jet West finds himself embroiled in a political assassination plot with undercurrents of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Smokescreen, described as “dark and edgy” by the Arab Daily News, is the debut title for new Hong Kong based imprint Lightning Originals and has received some rave reviews, with Amazon readers consistently giving it a five-star rating.
However, I have to confess to being a little disappointed. Little things, like getting the Arabic for apple and strawberry mixed up on the first page of the Prologue, meant that I didn’t start reading the book with the best impression.* Much of the narrative, too, seemed to me to be full of clichés, not just about the Middle East (we open with undercover agents smoking hookah pipes in a Cairene cafe). In addition, the writing seemed to be suffering a bit from “debut-novelitis”.
Despite my initial reservations, once the backdrop for the novel had switched to Singapore, I did start to suspend judgment and the writing seemed to become more confident at this point. With various action scenes set across the Singaporean landscape, the book became more enjoyable to read and I must say that Talib has an aptitude for writing dialogue. As the pace of the novel quickened, I hoped that perhaps the opening clichés had been done for some purpose and that the book would end up being cleverer than that, but, sadly, the story trailed off quietly and did not deliver the anticipated climax or hoped for quirky twist.
It’s being sold as a multilayered action thriller, with the protagonist finding himself caught up in an Alice in Wonderland style web. Unfortunately, despite an interesting plot and some promising nuggets, it didn’t fulfill that role for me and I can’t help but be disappointed that it wasn’t so much more. But, don’t take my word for it. Clearly the novel has met with a great deal of enthusiasm from various quarters and so perhaps it’s just not my kind of book.
Either way, with some original perspectives on otherwise overused themes and a confident style, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of Khaled Talib as an author. He’s already working on a second novel and, depending on the success of the digital book, a print edition of Smokescreen is also planned.
*Note from EBR’s editor: Since this review was published, we have been contacted by the author, notifying us that he is aware of the language error. It will be rectified in subsequent editions, with amendments having been made on the print copy.