3 out of 4 stars
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The Expansion is a geopolitical thriller based around a bid for, and the subsequent building of, an expansion to the Panama Canal. Max Burns, the protagonist of the novel, is the lead engineer of a British team bidding for the rights to build the project. Working with his old school friend Godfredo and Godfredo’s shady father Paco, Max and his team have to deal with the equatorial climate, Godfredo’s laissez-faire attitude and corruption from local officials at every turn.
Though Max’s former girlfriend Sarah broke up with him when he elected to take the job of a lifetime working on the expansion bid in Panama, a new love interest for Max enters the picture in the form of Karis Deen, an American paleo-archaeologist working in the Canal Zone. Karis’ involvement runs deeper than Max knows, however, as she is an undercover CIA agent with a mission to make sure the canal expansion is not sabotaged.
Max is a typical engineer; exceptional at his job and driven to succeed, sabotage and graft are incomprehensible to him. Unfortunately for him, this means that those with more nefarious motives see him as a useful fall guy, and it slowly becomes obvious throughout the book that Max is nothing more than a pawn in a game worth billions of dollars. A murder late in the book raises the stakes to terrifying levels and Max has to decide who to trust as he fights to save both himself and the project from disaster.
I didn’t find a single typo in the book and the word choices are appropriate for the genre - bad language and violence are to be expected on a construction site, after all! Pacing and sentence structure are excellent and the flow of the story is never interrupted by clunky exposition or unnecessary scenes. The author is to be congratulated for the quality of editing on these points.
I enjoyed The Expansion, but I thought that the book had some shortcomings. It was very light on engineering detail; while the history of the canal and the current economic and political climate was nicely filled in, there were no specifics on what the canal’s expansion would actually entail. Would there be new locks or extensions to original ones? Would the canal have to be closed at any point? Is the canal being deepened? These questions were not answered at all, and I found myself disappointed by this lack of detail.
The only characters who are really described in any detail are Max and Godfredo, and for them we only get character descriptions, not physical ones, which were reserved for the female characters in the book. I found it very hard to imagine what Max, in particular, looked like; describing him through Karis’ eyes would have been quite simple to do and it would have really helped the reader visualize the events of the book a lot better.
Ultimately, I felt that the pace of the book was too slow for a thriller, particularly quite a short one. The single murder in the book occurs very late on and until this point, there is very little ‘action’ happening. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning about the geopolitics of Central America and the history of the Panama Canal, but I regret to say that as a geopolitical thriller, it’s not really all that thrilling. I am rating The Expansion three out of four stars.
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