Anyone who has read books about Soviet era espionage recognizes a certain kind of scene: intelligence agents meeting to exchange information—and occasionally prisoners—in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Breach, the first book in W.L. Goodwater’s Cold War Magic series, uses this well-worn trope and amplifies it with the threat of magical annihilation, bringing a new edge to the traditional spy story.
In the waning hours of World War II, Soviet magicians conjured a wall of pure magic, dividing Berlin in two and protecting their hold on East Germany. While the world was aghast, there was little the West could do. The wall was impenetrable except at specific, predetermined crossing points like Checkpoint Charlie. Until now. The wall is failing, and to avoid World War III, the US needs to find out why—and try to reverse the process. The CIA calls on Karen, a young researcher from the American Office of Magical Research and Deployment. As she searches for a way to repair the wall, Karen quickly realizes that the truth is never straightforward in Berlin, especially when it comes to the story behind the Wall itself.
The characters of Breach shine as much as the plot and world do. Like the book itself, the characters are well-trodden archetypes that are given new life. There’s the young magician burnout-turned spy and his partner, the not-quite-recovering alcoholic chief, and the young spitfire determined to make her place in the world. If those sound familiar and even overdone, it’s because they are. But Goodwater takes those cardboard cutouts of what we would expect from a 1980s spy novel and turns them into three-dimensional characters that readers can actually root for. Far from being mere types, Karen and her compatriots are vibrant characters with complex inner lives. They go off-script from typical spy novels, making a world that could have been a parody of itself into one that readers will be eager to get back to.
Goodwater’s debut novel is tightly wound in the way that only good suspense stories can be. At any moment it seems that the fragile peace built between the West and East could fall apart with disastrous consequences, which is a testament to Breach’s overall success with dramatic timing. By the same token, however, if it’s possible to make a complaint about Breach, the only complaint to make is that at a few points the story felt rushed, with too many events being crushed into not enough space. While this fits with the frenetic pace of the scenes in question, it also made action sequences difficult to follow because so much was happening at once. However, the pleasure of the book as a whole more than made up for these slight pacing issues.
Breach combines the magical world building of The City & the City with the suspense of Cold War thrillers like Bridge of Spies, resulting in a cinematic suspense story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very last page.