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The Good Son    by Michael Gruber order for
Good Son
by Michael Gruber
Order:  USA  Can
Griffin, 2011 (2010)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Michael Gruber, author of the excellent Book of Air and Shadows, Night of the Jaguar and Forgery of Venus, as well as a YA novel (The Witch's Boy), brings us another brilliant, intelligent but yet again different read in The Good Son.

A mother and her warrior son are the leads in this gripping story. Sonia Laghari is a Catholic Pole, who converted to Islam after her marriage to Farid Laghari. She's comfortable practicing both religions, her choice depending on context. Sonia has led a turbulent life. Daughter of a Polish aristocrat, she grew up among circus performers in the United States. After her marriage to Farid and move to Lahore, Pakistan, she scandalized her new family by leaving her then three-year-old son Theo to travel through 'Soviet Central Asia, disguised as a Muslim boy.' When Theo was ten, she went on 'the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca', again in male disguise. After she wrote (as Sonia Bailey) a book about her travels, fatwas were issued, sending Sonia and Farid in exile to the USA.

We acquire Theo's complex back story in bits and pieces - including his stint as a teen mujahedeen hero in Afghanistan, along with his almost brother Wazir, son of his grandfather's Pashtun bodyguard. Once extracted and returned to his parents in the U.S., he was educated and eventually joined the Tactical Intelligence Support Detachment. He's now a shooter involved in covert operations. As The Good Son opens, Theo is recovering from injuries sustained during his last mission, when he's horrified by a call from Sonia to tell him she's on her way to Lahore. She is one of the organizers of a conference on Conflict Resolution on the Subcontinent: A Therapeutic Approach.

En route to the remote conference location, the nine participants (including eccentric telecom billionaire William Craig) are abducted by terrorists with divided loyalties. Sonia, a skilled practicing Jungian psychologist with a deep knowledge of Islamic doctrine, plays on those loyalties and on tribal superstition. Not immediately recognized as Sonia Bailey (which would have led to a quick execution) she interprets dreams for her kidnappers. Though badly abused, she's a survivor. While Sonia plays for time for herself and those around her, Theo uses family connections to set up a nuclear weapons scare that will lead to his being sent on a rescue mission.

This intricate story also features Cynthia Lam, an uber-ambitious young Vietnamese American woman who works as a translator at NSA Headquarters in Maryland and is embroiled, to her detriment in Theo's plan. The novel is filled with surprises and ultimately sets Theo's life on an intriguing new path. The Good Son explores all the ties - to friends, family, clan and country - that bind and stress us, as it delves into alien (to North Americans) Islamic cultures.

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