What happens when you put a young principled person in a shady job? Tension, lots of it. This is what Jessica Warne constantly encounters in The Assistant, an Emerald City Spies novel by Cheri Baker. And this is my 99.9% spoiler-free review.
Before I jump into the story itself, here’s some background. Spy novels are not my typical genre. But I have read all of Cheri Baker’s other books, which are Cozy Mysteries. One thing they all have in common: they’re short and easy to read, great for escaping reality or taking a break from binging Netflix. But I liked a key difference: The Assistant’s lack of coziness.
The setting is Seattle, a city driven by capitalism. And the protagonist, Jessica Warne, is a driven young woman, independent almost to a fault. Ambition plays a big part throughout the story. And at the outset, you read the catalyst – unemployment – that thrusts Jessica into the main plot line. She must get a job!
This premise is instantly relatable, but the job Jessica ends up with is far more interesting than your typical nine-to-five! It’s mysterious and shady. Throughout the book, it’s obvious something is up, many ‘somethings’ actually, and you keep wondering what it all leads to.
What is the true nature of Jessica’s employment? And how far is she willing to go to find out? What is moral, ethical, or legal?
As Jessica is put to the test over and over, her character remains consistent to the end. At first, I thought this apparent lack of progress was a problem. Her story-arc seems flat rather than showing growth. Her strengths remain largely the same, as do her weaknesses, which she kind of learns to squelch.
But then I realized that instead of evolving, she avoids devolving. Her progress is measured in a lack of regress. When challenged by the external conflict of the job, the internal conflict Jessica goes through forces her to make many decisions with high stakes. Above all, she never backs down but perseveres.
Nevertheless, Jessica does exhibit some growth. Early on she is literally outfitted for the job; she looks confident but feels inadequate. Yet by the end of the narrative, Jessica gains confidence in her abilities in more ways than one. She not only shows that she can do the job, she also can do the right thing. Success for Jessica is not selling her soul to the devil for an obscene salary.
The overarching sense of the book is tension! A story can’t exist without conflict. The Assistant provides lots of both the external and internal variety.
As I’ve found in Baker’s other books, scenes and settings are described clearly, most characters are fleshed out well, and you often sense everything because Baker doesn’t tell you what’s happening, she shows you. You are drawn more into the story because you feel it, you’re in the action with the hero.
The Assistant is written in 3rd person rather than 1st; I found it engaging. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a story is character driven or plot driven; this one seemed to be more plot driven.
The pacing was mostly good, but the 3rd quarter felt monotonous as Jessica and one other character, Cody, seemed to dominate the main plot with training, gadgets, and more on-the-job-training.
Likes And Dislikes
There is, to me, a downside of this book. The main plot is clung to so closely that other teased side plots are neglected or abandoned. There were interesting minor plot points that I thought would go further. But it seems they only served to help develop the main plot or Jessica’s character. Fair enough, I suppose.
One example is the relationship, or lack thereof, between Andy and Taylor. Nothing happened! Early on in chapter 3, it’s obvious that Taylor, Jessica’s friend, is more than a little interested in Andy, Jessica’s boyfriend. Later in chapter 18, there’s a situation where you think this could go further, but it doesn’t. Also, Jessica and Andy’s relationship, while challenged, does not develop as much as I’d hoped.
Another example involves Taylor’s Dad. I thought his poor relationship to Taylor and Jessica would play into the story more, but it didn’t really. It explained the background of the two girls’ living situation to amplify their predicament and thus increase tension in the story.
Then there’s Cody. When you first meet him, you find out he’s got emotional baggage related to some heavy stuff. So you suspect this will be at least a minor plot point later on, but it turned out underutilized if you ask me.
In the latter half of the story, when you finally see the big shady thing Jessica must do, the actual task is relatively easy. There’s a quandary, Jessica has minor scruples, and that’s about it. Based on her strong character and ambitious desire to climb the ranks and make the big bucks, I am a bit surprised she didn’t hesitate less.
Shortly thereafter, you discover some truth…but by this point it was not much of a surprise. And when even more info is revealed, you realize things are pretty convoluted. The ending unfolds with revelation but omits good closure. This was disappointing.
And there was at least one event (Lance’s date with a woman) that left me with unanswered questions. Also, the ending was basically a cliff-hanger, raising new questions without another page to turn to, for now.
I felt like some of the drama was anticlimactic. The built-up tension felt gently eased off instead of suddenly released.
Despite some downsides to the story, which I gave a 3-star rating on goodreads, I liked it enough to look forward to the next book in the series, Power Play.
The overall tension is the highlight of The Assistant. It kept me turning the pages. The world-building met my expectations. Carma is a character I hope returns. I want to see how far Jessica goes in her career and in her personal relationships, and I hope they somehow get entangled in her work! Now that would raise the stakes even more.
Seattle, the Emerald City, is a tough nut to crack. Jessica Warne did it, she got into a lucrative job. But will she crack? Or will she persevere and discover more about her employer and its clients? I will read on to find out.
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