Need To Know by Karen Cleveland

The Blurb On The Back:

Perfect husband.  Perfect father.  Perfect liar?

Married for ten years.

Four children.

She thought she knew her husband better than anyone.

She was wrong.

Vivian Miller is a CIA analyst assigned to uncover Russian sleeper cells in the USA.  After accessing the computer of a potential Russian spy, she stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents living in her own country.  Five seemingly normal people living in plain sight.

A few clicks later, everything that matters to Vivian is threatened – her job, her husband, even her four children …

Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  But now she’s facing impossible choices.  Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust?

Will her next move be the right one? 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Vivian Miller is happily married to Matt (who works in computing) and they have four young children, one of whom has health issues.  She also works as an analyst for the CIA and has spent the last two years hunting for Russian sleeper agents in the US with Omar (her FBI counterpoint).

As part of her investigation into Yuri (a suspected Russian agent running a sleeper cell) she has gained access to a cloned copy of his laptop but when she runs through Yuri’s files she’s shocked to discover that one of his sleepers is her husband, Matt.  Worse, when she confronts him about it, he confirms that he’s been working for the Russians for the last 22 years but he swears that he’s never given his handler confidential information about her.

As a CIA analyst, Vivian’s duty is clear: she should tell her boss Peter and Omar and let them deal with Matt.  But she has obligations as a wife and mother too, especially as she still loves Matt and she wants to believe him …

Karen Cleveland’s debut spy thriller is a disappointingly predictable thriller where every plot twist is signposted far in advance and where the main character lacks agency – constantly manipulated by the men surrounding her for their own purposes (and even though she’s aware of the possible manipulation, she has no counter to it), which makes for a frustrating read.

The big problem with the book is Vivian herself.  Although we’re told she’s a trained CIA analyst and is sworn to defend her country, it seemed weird to me that for someone assigned to the Russia desk, she doesn’t actually speak Russian (given that Cleveland worked for the CIA I’m assuming that isn’t uncommon but it does seem to me to be an obvious hindrance to being able to do her job well).  She frequently tells the reader that she can’t believe she’s going to do something, then she does it anyway even though the consequences of that act are pretty obvious (the more so because Cleveland has Vivian warn about what could happen before it does so, robbing the plot of what little tension it could otherwise have).

I did believe in her love and fear for her children (and I thought Cleveland did well at capturing Vivian’s maternal guilt, in part brought about because her work means she lacks the bond that Matt has with them) and why that would drive her to some of her more eye-rolling actions.  However once the revelation comes from Matt about who he really is (and who never acquires any depth following this revelation), I didn’t buy why Vivian was so willing to constantly give him the benefit of the doubt – especially because the flashback scenes where she reviews key moments in her life and how Matt manipulated her into certain decisions are so obvious and on a rational level should have made her at least want to protect herself rather than focus on protecting him.  This is particularly noticeable in the final quarter of the book where a plot twist should have raised automatic alarm bells for Vivian but she buys the explanations too easily (in part assisted by another plot twist that I’d seen coming early on) and is cemented in a scene where Vivian who is now fully aware of how she’s been manipulated, then allow herself to be manipulated again in exactly the same way as before.  All of this worked to rob her of agency and be shown as being bad at her job, which is depressing given that she’s clearly someone that Cleveland wants readers to relate to and root for.

The Russian characters are all one-note and there isn’t a single plot twist that’s not telegraphed in advance (including the final reveal in the epilogue).  Ultimately, while there’s clearly going to be a lot of hype about this book, if you’re looking for a strong, multi-layered female protagonist that you’re better off looking elsewhere.

NEED TO KNOW will be released in the United Kingdom on 25th January 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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