By Andrew Kaplan

HarperCollins ($9.99)

ISBN-13: 978-0-06-206378-6

Reviewed by Sam Waas

Scorpion is the code name for a former CIA field agent turned freelance. Scorpion comes with plenty of baggage and a dark, troubled past, but he's also smart, efficient, and lethal. He's the go-to guy for repairing leaks in espionage blunders or fixing serious problems, and fixing them fast.

Trouble is storming down like an ancient blizzard upon Ukraine. Presidential elections are weeks away and the two main candidates have taken their campaigns to the street. One candidate is pro-West, the other pro-Russian, and the resurgent Russian government would like nothing better than to have its man chosen. Rioting and demonstrations are bringing emotions to a fever pitch, for such is the expected climate of today's world. That much is given.

The CIA has now learned of a plot to assassinate the Russia-backed candidate, provoking wide unrest and providing the Russians with a ruse to invade Ukraine to "protect" ethnic Russians there. At first glance, it would seem that Russian hardliners are behind this, but it may be the Chinese, other greedy nations, or even factions within Ukraine itself. Scorpion must quickly penetrate the morass of unreliable operatives scattered throughout the country, work his way around corrupt government officials, and stop the assassination.

But Scorpion's contacts have been compromised, he's soon framed and on the run, trying to stay a step ahead of those who want him dead and, at the same time, discover who's behind the scheme.

SCORPION WINTER is a first-rate modern espionage thriller, quite violent and at times brutal, with twists and turns on nearly every page, a fine complement of villains and shady characters to move the story along with energy.

The author makes good use of exotic locales and the complex social mores of a country torn by conflicts that are centuries old, and does a superb job of blending all this into a tightly interwoven background for the story line.

A slight criticism is that there are too many foreign-language quotes which are then translated to English, such as "Khto vy? Who are you?" The purpose of non-English dialogue is to establish verisimilitude and provide the flair of a culture that's unfamiliar to most readers. And occasional colorful phrases do elevate the narrative, particularly if it's slang or obscenity. But too many can slow the pace. The novel is crisp and highly charged, but its rhythm can be diverted by overuse of these dual-language insertions.

SCORPION WINTER is nevertheless highly recommended. Fans of modern espionage thrillers, especially novels that are dark and violent, will thoroughly enjoy this new novel in the Scorpion series.

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