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Looking for the Mahdi
N. Lee Wood
Ace Books, 337 pages

Looking for the Mahdi
N. Lee Wood
N. Lee Wood sold her first novel in Romania. She is also the the author of Faraday's Orphans. She is married to Norman Spinrad and they live in Paris, France.

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A review by Donna McMahon

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An action adventure novel set in the near future, Looking for the Mahdi may get a second look from readers these days because of its strong Middle East setting. It's pretty clear that N. Lee Wood has visited the Middle East because while the tiny Muslim country of "Khuruchabja" is fictional, the author gets many of the Third World details exactly right -- from the travellers at the airport lugging in every Western consumer good they can carry, to the starving street children with sores in their eyes.

The viewpoint character in this book is K.B. Munadi, a tough-talking war correspondent who became famous for broadcasting live reports during the Khuruchabja war. What K.B.'s viewers never knew was that "he" was a woman disguising herself as a man so that she could travel freely in the Middle East. Ten years after the war she's working as a news feeder under her real name, Kay Bee Sulaiman, and she has no intention of passing as a man again, never mind returning to a poverty-stricken hellhole she'd barely escaped with her life.

Until, of course, she is blackmailed by the American "CDI" who want her to return for one last assignment. Worse still, she has to accompany a humanoid fabricant -- a patented, bio-engineered soldier/spy who is being sold by the CDI to the King of Khuruchabja. Kay Bee loathes and fears replicants, and she certainly doesn't want to start feeling sorry for one -- or sexually attracted to him.

There are a few weaknesses in this book. Wood cannot resist long lectures about Middle East politics and genetic engineering. However, the reader who isn't interested in 8 pages of fine detail can just skip forward. A more serious issue is the one-note characterization of Kay Bee, who is just too angry and strident too much of the time. Also, there is a long, unnecessary torture scene near the end during which the villain explains his motivations for the reader.

In all, the book ends weakly, at least from a character point of view. I got the feeling that once the geo-political plots threads were tied up and explained for 5 pages, the author lost interest.

Still, this is a well-considered, fast-moving story, with a refreshingly intelligent and complex view of the Middle East. CNN junkies and history/politics fans will enjoy this.

Copyright © 2001 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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