2 out of 4 stars
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In a village of bamboo huts, guns mounted on tripods are pointing at the sky. A helicopter appears and drops fireballs. One of these sucks out the air below the helicopter, which crashes down causing death and destruction. This is not Vietnam in the 1960s, though - it's Hollywood in 1982. Vietnam veteran Danny Summers, who is the hero of Opium and the Red Rose by Michael Rogers, is filming the scene when a man approaches him with an invitation to meet with a Senator called Mainland.
Especially as the accident in Hollywood triggers Danny's post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the Vietnam combat, he is intrigued by the Senator's proposal. He learns that his former driver is now General Khun Sa and a drug lord in the Golden Triangle formed by the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. He has been selected to leverage this connection in a deal with the US Government concerning Khun Sa's opium crop. So that's the "opium" part of the title. To find out the significance of the "Red Rose", you will have to read the book.
I loved the premise of this novel. It is classed as historical fiction but also works as a thriller. The opening set the tone for a tale of double-dealing where things are often not what they seem. I was fascinated by the idea of a character serving in the Vietnam war as a young man and then in the "War on Drugs" as a mature one. I was interested to see how he would deal with his PTSD. At times, the story reads like travel writing. I enjoyed the detailed description of the Italianate railway station in Bangkok as well as a scene in a downpour where riverside steps become a waterfall. The scenes are often film-like, which reflects the author's background.
That strength was also a liability at times. Thoughts and feelings that had already been shown were repeated unnecessarily. There were also some pacing problems. An example of this is an incident where a character goes missing. In a sinister twist, the home from which she's vanished is left immaculate, although she's a poor housekeeper. When the situation is resolved shortly afterwards, something that could have been thrilling feels more like a damp squib than a fireball. Similar patterns occur throughout.
An editor might be able to address these issues and would probably suggest some cuts. This is because parts seemed overly long and characters and scenes unnecessary. Another area requiring an editor's attention is the grammar and spelling as there are multiple errors. My rating is 2 out of 4 stars; I took away a star for the errors and another partly because the pacing and tension need improvement.
Another area for improvement is the portrayal of women. I believe the author was aiming to create a strong female character in Susan Vickers, Senator Mainland's striking secretary who leads Danny's mission. The third-person narration does not delve into her point of view, however, and her role seemed decorative for most of the story. The Asian women, meanwhile, were portrayed overwhelmingly in terms of looks and sexuality. It was exciting when members of the matriarchal Ahka tribe brought their combat skills to the mission, but then another stereotype of Asians as warriors was in play. Their knife-throwing skills also seemed less important than their sex appeal to American males.
Nonetheless, the story became more enjoyable after those characters came into it. I'd recommend this book to those who favour thrillers, action scenes and stories about the Vietnam War. Sensitive readers are warned that this book contains some violence and gore. It's more suited to a mature audience. There are frequent sex scenes that become increasingly graphic as the story goes on, including some distasteful non-consensual sex. If you can get past this and the slow beginning, it's worth reading for the denouement and climax, which are cleverly done. Overall, this book worked well on some levels but not on others.
Opium and the Red Rose
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