Soldiers in Afghanistan believe the demon they’re confronting isn’t metaphorical but a real entity that’s stalking them in this thriller.
Nine months after returning to the United States from Afghanistan, Lt. Matt Slayton identifies the body of soldier Bobby Sweet, dead from an apparent suicide. Other men from Slayton’s platoon have had similar fates, like one injured in a shootout with Texas police, spurred by a road rage incident. The narrative flashes back to Slayton first arriving at Combat Outpost Victor as the replacement lieutenant for Second Platoon, Charlie Company. The soldiers’ duties include protecting locals from the Taliban, but it’s the platoon that locals blame when, following a gunfight with Taliban fighters, village elder Aboud is dead next to a few shell casings. It seems, however, that the platoon’s alleged culpability is more far-reaching: Aboud had been keeping an evil entity trapped in a cave—a shrine—and now that spirit is free. Soon soldiers are plagued with nightmares and unnerving events: Cpl. Dixon mutters in his sleep (“Bad Yoda,” his buddies call it), while Slayton hallucinates a Great Dane-sized camel-spider attack. Occurrences increase in frequency and ferocity (one involving claymores), and side effects from pills (for example, antimalarial) are certainly not the reason. Slayton may have to decide who the worst enemy is: the Taliban or a demon called Balulu. Ryan’s (Night Bird Calling, 2014) novel is wrought with tension, set almost entirely in Afghanistan, with Slayton and his platoon in perpetual danger from baddies human or otherwise. Balulu, though not always tangible, remains an unmistakable threat; even if merely a notion, Slayton and others start attributing incidents to the demon. This gives weight to the Taliban as equally formidable villains, especially with the narrative’s implication that Balulu is merely an agitator triggering an already existing mutual animosity. There’s a bevy of violence and, despite the high body count, several surprising deaths. But this substantial tale has a compassionate side: Slayton doesn’t easily get over his first kill, and interpreter Mehrdad becomes both a friend and sounding board for him. The protagonist, too, has bouts of insight: “Not all wounds are physical,” he aptly puts it.
An impressive blend of a largely unseen preternatural being and the palpable horrors of war.