An American teenager testing her limits in Venice’s salacious nightlife falls victim to kidnappers. The Carabinieri, Italy’s national police, swings into action, while American Army personnel at controversial Camp Ederle watch. But these aren’t ordinary kidnappers. While the Carabinieri fumble badly, the kidnappers begin transmitting young Mia Elston’s tortures online—tortures that look chillingly familiar to anybody who’s watched the news since 2003.
The second novel in Jonathan Holt’s Carnivia Trilogy, following last year’s The Abomination, treads similar ground while telling an altogether separate story. As before, it spotlights the collision of three worlds: Venice’s sensual nihilism, lingering Cold War repression at Ederle, and the complete shedding of limits in Carnivia, an elaborate website combining elements of Facebook, Silk Road, and Ashley Madison. Holt’s love for secrets and conspiracy continues unabated.
Following events of the previous volume, Carabinieri Captain Kat Tapo finds herself busted to menial tasks. Male colleagues leave vulgar graffiti on her stationhouse locker. Mia Elston’s kidnapping strikes Kat’s empathetic nature, yes, but it also signals an opportunity to redeem herself before the bureaucracy that’s abandoned her. So she contacts two people she believes she can trust, though she previously squandered their good graces altogether.
Lieutenant Holly Boland works the Civilian Liaison desk at Ederle, but keeps an apartment in Venice. Once Kat’s best friend, they had a bitter split, for reasons kept murky until very late. Holly believes her superiors distrust her because she gets along well with Italians, but her problems run far deeper. As Mia Elston’s kidnappers prove elusive, the Army demands Holly’s ability to straddle two cultures, but rising tensions make her situation increasingly perilous.
This tapestry of characters and situations collides violently with the kidnappers, who clearly desire to make some ill-defined point. Mia, a dedicated survivor, begins working her captors’ ideological loyalties, unpacking what makes their barbarity tick. But her kidnappers prove only the surface of a deeper scheme. Powerful, deeply connected interests are using Mia to distract Italian and international forces from a conspiracy dating to the very beginnings of the Cold War.
Jonathan Holt loves playing in the past. Though Ederle’s presence overlooking Venice seems a lingering Cold War ghost, partly outdated now that Venice isn’t the border between NATO and WARSAW, in Holt’s telling, it retains connections to the past, built partly on abandoned Nazi foundations, and present, located centrally for airlifts from North Africa and the Middle East. In Holt’s world, the past is never really gone.
Holt tells a gripping story. While his characters face the absolute implacability of awful people doing terrible things to a defenseless girl, they must persevere through their own interior struggles. Every principal character has scars lingering from the previous novel. Each also faces stubborn rules established by their respective bureaucracies. If our protagonists hope to rescue Mia, they must first overcome their own circumstances.
That said, this novel isn’t perfect. Besides his story, Holt has a point he hopes readers remember, a point regarding how realpolitik creates a gulf between a people’s ideals and its practices. He occasionally stops the narrative to lecture readers about his message, with increasing frequency as the story progresses. If your text has a thesis statement, consider, please, whether you’d rather write nonfiction than a political thriller.
Some early readers have criticized Holt’s storytelling because he views American global involvement very dimly. Some say this story makes America the “bad guy.” I disagree: though American military leadership emerges shamefaced from Holt’s story, so does the Carabinieri, the EU, and the international justice system. Holt, a political liberal but social conservative, clearly dislikes governments broadly. That just happens to include America’s. Anti-state Republicans may find their loyalties torn.
Essentially, Holt wants to cobble a realistic political thriller from a medley of real-world and fictional elements. He mostly succeeds. If he intermittently feels compelled to remind readers how we ought to receive his message, that’s high-handed, but in light of his gripping narrative, forgivable. Because his characters and situations are undeniably engaging, and his lectures short, the story proceeds apace. Overall, the story readers come seeking, they will find.