On September 11, 2001, Kris Caldera is a young CIA agent specializing in Afghanistan. On that day, he watches, along with the rest of the world, as the planes strike the Twin Towers, as the Pentagon is attacked, and as a plane crashes in Pennsylvania. And Kris experiences of special kind of horror knowing that something he missed may have made the attacks possible. From that moment on, Kris dedicates his life to finding and stopping the terrorists, to making sure nothing like that can ever happen again.
Kris is assigned to join an advance team of CIA and military to be first on the ground in Afghanistan in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Prior to the attack, the country wasn’t really the focus of CIA attention, and at only 23, Kris is the CIA expert on the country, the culture, and the languages. Even though he knows more than anyone else, getting respect from the team is difficult. He is small, young, brown skinned, and clearly gay, and getting taken seriously is hard. The one person who seems to believe in Kris is Special Forces Sergeant David Haddad. The two men grow close and depend on one another as the mission everyone hoped would be over quickly instead turns into years of fighting and hunting Bin Laden.
Despite the horrors of war, the bombings and the attacks, despite barely surviving in remote locations, David and Kris manage to find something special. As the years pass, the connection between them continues to grow. Both men have always struggled to fit in, Kris for being gay and non-white, and David for being Muslim in America. But together they find a way to make it work together, falling deeply in love. Ultimately, as Kris begins to earn more respect for his expertise, the men are even able to be public about their relationship, though it is still frowned upon.
But just when it seems like they may finally be close, that Bin Laden may be in their sights, something devastating happens that tears Kris and David apart. Kris loses both his job and the man he loves, and he barely continues on, just a glimmer of his former self. For David’s part, his life is thrown into upheaval as he is kidnapped and tortured and left in such a remote location he has no idea how to return to his old life.
Ten years later, the men are finally reunited. With a new and even more deadly threat on the horizon, David and Kris must figure out if there is still a chance for a life for them together, or if too much has happened for them to still work. Both men are deeply in love and their bond has never broken, but that may not be enough for them to rebuild their lives together.
Wow. I just have to say that it has been a long time since I felt so immersed in a book or since one has affected me so deeply. I am still thinking about this story, about David and Kris, and about the many fascinating ideas Tal Bauer manages to pull together into one book.
So let me say, this is a long book. Like really long. Amazon lists it at 951 pages. And I read it in less than 48 hours. So it is not overstating things to say I couldn’t put it down. Officially the story divides into two parts, but in my mind it really feels like three. The first part of the book begins on September 11th as Kris watches the nation face a terrorist act on U.S. soil. Not only does Kris feel the horror that all of us experienced, but he also feels responsible, that he missed something that could have stopped the attacks. So he comes to this fight with fervor, with a determination to dedicate his life to preventing anything like this from ever happening again.
This first section of the book follows from September 11th onward as the team fights the terrorists and hunts for Bin Laden. This portion of the book reads very much like a non-fiction recounting of real events, and in many ways, it is. It is clear that Bauer has done extensive research, and much of what happens here is based on real events and real people. I found it all fascinating. We get fabulous detail into the military and intelligence efforts overseas, particularly as Kris and David’s team are the vanguard group, making the first steps where others will eventually follow. It is just incredibly fascinating and so deeply detailed, I felt like I was reliving the history.
One of the things Bauer does so well here is highlight the cyclical nature and interconnectedness of what is happening politically in the world. We learn how the attack on a Russian ambassador years before led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S., in an attempt to destabilize the Soviets, ends up supporting the tribal lords and other factions, funding their battle agains the Russians. Then years later, those same leaders are now angry at the west, angry at interference in Muslim lands, and turning their eyes on the U.S., using money and resources we once gave them. It is all so intricate and shows how each little piece of the puzzle affects all the others. During this section, we start to see the growth of the bond between David and Kris, and it is clear something is building between them, but most of the focus here is on the military and intelligence operations.
The second portion of the book continues following the hunt for Bin Laden, but the tone shifts a little here to give more balance between the operational side and the relationship side. The guys are still part of the mission, but their romantic partnership plays a bigger role. We see them get married and navigate life together being out and gay in the CIA. Bauer brings in some important themes here as this is still the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and not so many years after gays were no longer forbidden to have top security clearances. David and Kris have to navigate a lot of prejudice, as well as a system that is not set up for same sex spouses. So I appreciated how Bauer brings in some social issues here to go alongside the operational work.
The final portion of the book jumps us ahead about ten years to modern day, picking up soon after the events of Hush. While we do get a couple of appearances from Tom and Mike, the books do completely stand alone. But the story jumps ahead and catches us up with what has been happening to both men in the intervening years. We also move into the suspense portion of the book as another terror attack is imminent, the guys are reunited, and the pace is fast and exciting and we try to untangle what is really going on. Bauer does suspense and fast-paced action so well, and this section really brings the excitement. At the same time, we also get to see the intense bond between the men once again. The romance here is just so lovely, so intense, that you can’t help swooning a bit at the connection David and Kris have together.
One element that is a strong theme throughout the book is a sense of disenfranchisement, of not being connected and not being heard. We see it in Kris, who must fight so hard to be taken seriously, who has always been an outsider because of his skin color and that he is gay. We also see it in David, who is a Muslim-American, an immigrant who struggled to fit in. David’s journey is particularly interesting as he lost connection with his faith for many years, but being back in the Muslim world starts to reawaken that spirituality in him. There are also some interesting parallels in the big picture sense, as we look at the larger Muslim world versus the small, radicalized factions. It is made clear that most of the Muslim leaders decry these radicals as not true Muslims, as not representing the Muslim faith, even as these men use religion to justify their violent behavior. It is such a clear parallel to so much of what is happening politically now, as far right groups use Christianity to justify so many of their actions, even as mainstream religious leaders make it clear that these versions of religion are not in keeping with the broader views. So there is a lot here that I found really through provoking and Bauer doesn’t shy away from really delving into some interesting issue about politics, religion, and culture.
As I said, I found this story just incredibly absorbing and quite moving. The political and military operations are so incredibly detailed, the suspense is exciting, and the story thought provoking. And underneath it all is a wonderful love story of two men who are so clearly bonded, so much two pieces of the same whole, as David says. I absolutely loved Whisper and it is highly recommended and well worth your time.