Part of the problem with writing a work of historical fiction is that, in most cases, the reader, before even cracking the binding of the work, is going to have a pretty good idea of how things will turn out. When Frederick Forsyth wrote THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, everyone knew up front that the Jackal wasn't going to succeed with his planned assassination of Charles de Gaulle. Reading historical fiction is a bit like going on a cruise whose ports of call are all backwater Third World countries; it's not the destination but the journey that's important.
The journey to the conclusion of RIFT ZONE, the debut novel of Raelynn Hillhouse, is enthralling and exotic. The premise --- a planned assassination of former General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev --- is an interesting one, but everyone knows that it didn't happen. So how does Hillhouse keep one reading? The short answer is by combining a complex plot with intriguing characters and injecting an erstwhile romantic triangle into the mix for good measure.
Hillhouse's biography itself reads like the stuff of fiction, and certainly Faith Whitney, her protagonist, is based on some of Hillhouse's own experiences. Whitney is ostensibly an art professor who uses her access to East Germany to smuggle antique treasures to collectors in the West in exchange for money and goods otherwise unavailable behind the Iron Curtain. Whitney's precarious high wire act comes to an end when the Stasi, the notorious East German intelligence agency, recruits her against her will to smuggle a package into Moscow. The bait for Whitney is the hint that her father --- who she has never known and who she believes to be dead --- is in fact alive.
Whitney soon learns though that the package she is to deliver is an integral part of a plot to assassinate Gorbachev, who has incurred the wrath of the Stasi with his limited reforms and halting steps away from the police state that governs the Soviet Union. Whitney is surrounded by enemies who all want to use her in order to further their own interests; the only people she can trust is her former fiancé and a KGB colonel who has romantic designs of her own upon Whitney.
The plotting here is quite complex, and the proliferation of Eastern European surnames make for occasional rough sledding for readers unfamiliar with the same; having a pen and a sheet of paper to keep an informal scorecard of the players in RIFT ZONE will enhance your enjoyment of the work and will give you an added appreciation for the plot, which is first-rate. One of the more fascinating aspects of a government's intelligence agencies is how they can find themselves internally and externally at loggerheads while ostensibly working toward the same goals. RIFT ZONE illustrates this well, while providing an interesting historical perspective of East Germany in the closing days of the Cold War.
Raelynn Hillhouse appears to have lived quite an interesting life, one that will undoubtedly provide grist for future novels.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 1, 2004