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By Bruce Jacobs

The Ascendant
by Drew Chapman
Simon & Schuster
($25.00, 388 pp.)

If snoozing your way through yet another season of Downton Abbey is not your idea of chasing away cabin fever, Drew Chapman’s first novel The Ascendant may just be your ticket out.

This international thriller doesn’t break a lot of ground that Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and John Le Carré haven’t plowed before. But Chapman comes out of the TV business so he knows enough to leave out those rainy London streets, endless Pentagon corridors and icy Moscow parks that Elmore Leonard reminded us are “the parts that readers tend to skip over.”

If he throws in the occasional description of a Chinese peasant’s donkey stew or a Wall Street money shop’s wasteland of Bloomberg monitors, it’s only to give us a chance to catch our breath because from the get-go, Chapman writes in the giddy-up mode, and it’s all we readers can do just to hold onto the saddle horn and let him carry us along for the ride.

A Pattern Wonk

His hero Garrett Reilly is a 26-year-old whiz kid bond trader at a boutique Wall Street investment bank. Avery Bernstein, the firm’s boss and Reilly’s professor at Yale before he dropped out to finish school at Long Beach State, hired him because he had a contrarian’s knack for sniffing out patterns in the endless stream of global financial information.

Reilly is a data miner whose bets in the volatile bond market have made him––and his firm––a ton of money. He is also plenty rough around the edges, a “pattern wonk” whose own life “wasn’t falling into a pattern. It was just…random. Making some money. Losing some money. Drinking. Sleeping with a girl, not seeing her again. Back at work.”

One Hungover Morning

One hungover morning he finds in the massive bond trade data a huge volume of US Treasury Bond sales that are flooding the market from seemingly random global sources. Knowing the volume will crash the dollar, he tells his boss he wants to bet big against it. A cautious man, Avery first wants to know who’s behind the trades. Reilly points out that only one place has that kind of money in treasuries with the balls to dump it all at once: China.

Avery holds off the trade and instead calls a top-level friend at the Treasury Department to share Reilly’s discovery. And that’s pretty much the end of Reilly’s life on easy street.

Ascendant Rising

Alerted in time, the U.S. Treasury sucks up the bond sales and supports the dollar, but a special top secret, need-to-know operation in The Defense Intelligence Agency called “Ascendant” sends Alexis Truffant, a smart, sexy Air Force Captain to seduce Reilly into serving his country. The Defense agency has been looking for someone like Reilly for a long time, someone who is so far out of the military box that he might provide direction to fight the next war—a cyber-war that doesn’t care about aircraft carriers, Sikorsky helicopters, or jarheads.

Reilly doesn’t fall so easily for Truffant’s entreaties, at least not the “serving his country” part. He lost his older brother in Afghanistan to “friendly fire,” but the DIA has ways to get him on board—a car bomb near his office, a bar fight in Long Beach, and, of course, the promise of getting in Truffant’s pants.

Cyber War

You can pretty much figure the rest out from here. An unknown worm gets into a nuclear power plant computer and shuts down the upper Midwest grid; the Las Vegas housing market tanks when global shell corporations flood Nevada with half-price homes; massive sell orders crash the US stock market; and the good old boy president from the South decides to put the whole US military on alert off the coast of China. But only covert cyber-tactics can win this cyber-war, and only Reilly knows how to do what the West Point crowd doesn’t.

“They were warriors, and he, at heart was a gamer. Money Games. Video games. He lived online. He played war virtually: Halo 4, Call of Duty, KillZone, Skyrim, and half a dozen others …They were two steps behind in everything, all the time. They were like the Post Office, but with guns.”

Computers Unleashed

As Chapman drives his story to the finish line, Reilly rains one creative cyber disruption after another down on China while the Secretary of Defense has his anxious finger on the red “Launch” button and Homeland Security tries to find and shut down the clandestine Ascendant operation and lock up Reilly forever.

A decade of financial meltdowns, persistent unemployment, political gridlock, anti-terrorist conventional war, bitcoins, Edward Snowden, and Target’s massive credit card breach is enough to convince us there is nothing too far-fetched in Chapman’s imaginings. Downton Abbey may touch on the way the world once was, but The Ascendant explores the world as it is–and makes us wonder if this is really the world we want.

Maybe we just need to shut off our wireless connections and virtual lives and put our hands on a good book instead.


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