Marc Royce returns to Iraq with no hesitation at the request of his former State Department boss in Lion of Babylon, Davis Bunn’s novel about post-Saddam Iraq. How could Marc not go to help find his kidnapped friend Alex Baird? Rather, the danger and risk excite him.
In Baghdad he links up with Sameh, a lawyer and member of the Syrian Christian Church. Marc endears himself to Sameh, his wife Miriam, his widowed niece Layla, and her daughter Bisan.
The resistance to his mission that Marc encounters from the most surprising quarters, along with sinister warnings and outright threats, signal this is more than a simple kidnapping for money. Any fears that he won’t be at the top of his former intelligence agent game after several years behind a desk as a forensic accountant soon dissipate as intuition and old reflexes kick in.
The story is a cat-and-mouse match that involves abductions, bombings, a clandestine church gathering, and a nighttime trip across the desert, all played out against the hot, dusty, colorful and lively streets and environs of Baghdad.
Bunn’s writing is wonderful as usual — taut, yet picturesque, as in this description of Ambassador Walton from early in the book:
“Ambassador Walton had shrunk to where he wore his skin like a partially deflated balloon. The flesh draped about his collar shook slightly as he growled, ‘You got precisely what you deserved’” p. 11.
Character-wise, between the mains I preferred the more human Sameh to the almost too-good-to- be-true (in a superhero kind of way) Marc. I also wished there had been a character glossary, as all the generic-named Arab characters, how they were related to each other, and which faction or society strata they belonged to were confusing, and I had to keep checking back to see who was who.
Talking theme, there was a definite patriotic American undertone, especially in the way Bunn depicted Marc. I appreciated the tolerance of Sameh who purposely employed both Shia and Sunni in his office to signal his objectivity to potential clients. Bunn handled the topic of religious faith (woven subtly throughout) most forthrightly when he pictured people of various factions and religions achieving unity during a covert worship service that both Sameh and Marc attended:
“The priest asked everyone to join hands for the Lord’s Prayer. Sameh took Marc’s hand, then grasped the man’s hand on his other side. He glanced around the room, and saw a miracle. Sunni holding hands with Shia, Christian with Muslim. Praying aloud the words. As one.
Sameh wept for himself, for his family, for his nation They had all endured so much …. They hid so much, even from themselves, for to speak of these things only invited despair and futile rage
And yet here and now, in this place, the impossible was happening…” p. 241.
For readers who enjoy a fast-paced story of political intrigue delivered with generous amounts of Middle Eastern realism, and a dollop of faith, Lion of Babylon is a good choice.