Cover Image: Missionaries


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An extremely thoughtful, well-researched novel of epic proportions. It takes a while for the stories of the four main characters to come together, but when they do, it's immensely rewarding.
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They say that organized religion has a lot in common with making war— plodding, chaotic enterprises led by egomaniacs and driven in equal measure by true belief and opportunism. In Missionaries, Klay draws on that characterization and freshens it up with personal insight into the particular and abstract motives that fuel the urge to make war or to be just close enough to it to profit from the carnage. One take: this is a story about war and geopolitics in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Venezuela. Another take: This is a hard look at human nature and its attempts at establishing political order—a phenomenon long marked by graphic violence, personal betrayal, and pathetic frailty. Concocted of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, the Old Testament, 21st-century geopolitics, and Rage Against the Machine, Missionaries is that rare kind of muscular fiction that manages to heal even as it wounds.
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Grim but knowledgeable novel about the aftereffects of America's twilight wars in Latin America and the Middle East and how they intersect in usually catastrophic ways with on-the-ground corruption and clannishness. Should be necessary reading for proponents of intervention or withdrawal. Klay (<I>Redeployment</i>) has a grunt-level cynicism about the inescapable brutality of human conflict that is hard-won and hard to shake off.
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A dark, cynical, brilliant take on the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.  In weaving together the stories of a journalist, soldiers (officers and enlisted) and Colombian civilians/narcos/paramilitaries, as well as some of their families, Mr. Klay creates characters who seem real and thus makes the reader explore the moral ambiguities that lie in all of our hearts.  What would you do in order to survive?  What mental  and moral gymnastics do we undergo to convince ourselves that we are doing something good in the world?  One can both condemn and empathize with the characters at different points. Whether or not we want to admit it, we all exist in shades of grey at different times.

If you were a fan of his debut collection, "Redeployment," "Missionaries" will not disappoint.

I was given this book by Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
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Klay, like many soldier-novelists before him, (Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn" comes to mind) brings a searing honesty and the visceral horror of war to the page in ways that may cause some readers to have to look away. And this is part of what infuriates him. How dare we send our young men and women off to fight for dubious reasons and then forget where they even are and what they are seeing every day in the field.

"Missionaries" follows four disparate characters as their lives intertwine in the killing fields of Columbia during the so-called war on drugs. Mason, a medic seeking a safer assignment now that he's a father, and Lisette, a correspondent hoping to make a name for herself in long form journalism, thought they had experienced the worst in Afghanistan. Yet in Columbia Abel saw his entire village destroyed by narco terrorists and Juan Pablo, a military man, is losing control of the various factions vying for power over the cocaine trade. Graft and corruption is rampant. Those who refuse to pay face the enforcers who seem to change every few months. No one can trust anyone.

Klay is an exquisite wordsmith. His powerful collection of short stories, "Redeployment," won the National Book Award in 2014. He excels at depicting the absurdity of war and the oh-so-human responses of soldiers to disfigurement and death, the way black humor is used to deflect emotions that might ravage a person. He also nails the interpersonal relationships of couples long separated by overseas assignments as they try to maintain honesty while abstaining from truths that might be more than each partner could bear to hear.

"Missionaries" is a brutal history lesson in the globalization of warfare in the 21st century, providing a window into the tricky ways that countries defuse blame as each contributes to the creation of modern drone technology allowing violence to be rained down on the innocent from the comfort of a trailer nestled in the suburban hills outside London or DC.

My initial critique of this book was that it could have benefited from a strategic editing of its over four hundred pages, but in retrospect, I've changed my mind. When a soldier-writer bares his soul on the page the very least we can do is bear witness.
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Ever since there has been warfare, there has been art about warfare. The visceral nature and high stakes of combat are fertile ground for creative expression, providing the backdrop for uncountable stories and images that attempt to convey the violent eternal present of war.

Most of the time, the art that comes from wars is born after the conflict concludes. However, that isn’t the case with the creations inspired by this country’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – those fights remain ongoing, but artists have nevertheless mined them for inspiration.

Author Phil Klay made a massive splash on the literary scene with his debut book “Redeployment” in 2014 – it won the National Book Award that year, as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, awarded for a best first book in any genre (as a member in good standing of NBCC, I actually cast my vote for “Redeployment” to win the John Leonard).

Klay is back with his first novel. “Missionaries” is a look at the global war machine, the world-spanning business of warfare writ large and small. Through interconnected perspectives and narrators, it’s a look at the many ways in which the horrors of war can impact those who participate – willingly or otherwise.

Spanning decades of time and thousands of miles, “Missionaries” is a tale of the damage war can do and the influence it can have on the choices that those involved ultimately make. It’s also about the high cost, in money and in blood, exacted by the act. And it’s a tacit admission that if you’re in it, you’re in it – all are complicit, regardless of what they might tell themselves.

Lisette is a war correspondent, a stringer who has spent years in war zones. Mason is an army medic, but not just any medic – a Special Forces medic, with all that that entails. Both were in Afghanistan for a long time, reupping whenever the time came. Both have become numb in their own way to the constant anger and fear surrounding them, but are self-aware enough to be unsettled by that numbness.

Juan Pablo is a Colombian military officer, one committed to retaining the assistance of American forces in an effort to take down the various militias and gangs associated with his country’s drug trade. Abel is a young man who was forced into one such paramilitary group as a teen – barely more than a boy – but through intelligence, cunning and luck, managed to not just stay alive, but thrive.

The paths of these four people converge in Colombia, where each is left to fight his or her own battle. Blood and tears are shed. Alliances are murky and morality is questionable; the truth is, everyone believes themselves to be on the right side. But is that belief enough to justify the decisions that are ultimately made? And ultimately, in a fight like this … does the right side even exist?

“Missionaries” is an intense and powerful exploration of modern warfare. Klay – who served four years overseas in the Marines – is writing from a place of first-hand perspective. He has seen the impact that 21st century wars have on not just the battlefield, but on those simply trying to live a life. There’s a degree of remove now, with long-range weapons and drones and the like; it’s much easier for those pulling the trigger to view their targets in the abstract. War has always been viewed as a game by some in the upper echelons of power, but when so much of it takes place on a screen, that sense of gamification is even more prevalent.

The regular shifting of perspectives allows for a much broader storytelling net to be cast – Klay is unafraid to evoke memory, lending his timelines a soft-edged flexibility. His understanding of the social and geopolitical ramifications of war is exceptional, the product of not just his own deployment, but years spent in research. That combination of real-world and academic knowledge allows him to give us a vivid and richly-realized portrait of conflict as it exists today; his is a keen and thoughtful voice, one that is both authoritative and transportive.

At times, things get a bit shaggy. One gets the feeling occasionally that Klay is trying to do too much, forcing the story instead of letting it flow freely. Only occasionally, though – those moments are both rare and brief. Most of the time, we’re simply swept away by the author’s ability to craft fully-formed pictures of men at war; he’s at his best when he lets loose on creating the fight, giving us a sharp and aggressive glimpse at the details of the battlefield.

“Missionaries” doesn’t quite ascend to the level of “Redeployment,” but that’s no sin – it’s not like you can win the National Book Award every time out. It reaches quite high enough, a compelling work of literary fiction that drops the reader into the midst of the action, giving us an unexpectedly close-up look at the machinations of war. War is a crucible for artists as it is for other men – and Phil Klay is an artist.
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A complex novel exploring different factions at war in Afghanistan and Columbia. Really well done and although told from various perspectives the narratives all have distinctive voices. Graphic with violence but captures the atmosphere of war brilliantly.  I would read this one again.

Copy provided by the publisher and NetGalley
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REVIEW: Missionaries by Phil Klay

Just how sprawling is America's wars across the globe?  And how much, if you’re an American taxpayer, do you know about where the $738 billion-with-a-b that makes up the US military budget in 2020 is being spent?  

Phil Klay's impressive first novel, Missionaries, adopted a wide lens to capture the way wars and the euphemistically-termed "conflicts" feed and renew each other all over the world with lives and tactics and weaponry.  This panoramic view - undergirded by six years of research and Klay's own service in the Iraq War - makes for a reading experience that is dizzying but deeply satisfying.

Klay is a storyteller with nimble technique: a quick switch of perspective here, a lifting of the gaze there, and the reader feels instantly transported to the middle of the action.  Much of the story takes place in Colombia, though Klay weaves a globe-spanning tale.  We follow four primary characters: Mason, a Special Forces liaison for the US Embassy in Bogota, Lisette, an American war correspondent, Abel, a paramilitary soldier whose childhood tragedies framed his life, and Juan Pablo, an officer in the Colombian army.  

The action is frequently brutal - Klay's prose is tight but spares nothing - but what Missionaries does most deftly is lay out the shifting sands of every event, a slightly nauseating calculation of intentions, incompetence, and chance.  Each of the dozen characters has their own motivation, often opaque and morally ambiguous, and in the novel's climax, Klay cleverly sets the events in motion with a casual revelation.

Missionaries wasn’t an easy read, but I loved this book and its ambition.  I found the ending particularly chilling: when we talk about American's greatest exports, where does war come into the discussion?
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This is a dark complex read that isn't for the faint of heart.  It's the entwined story of Mason, Lisette, Abel, and Juan Pablo, all players in the war against narcos in Colombia.  Mason is a medic in the US special forces and his story begins in Afghanistan, as does Lisette's- she's a journalist.  They are in Colombia for different reasons but their paths eventually cross.  Abel is the sole survivor of a massacre when he was a teen and he grows, to his regret, to become the trusted thumb of Jefferson, an ironically named narcotrafficking terrorist  Juan Pablo, a military officer is hunting with the assistance of the US.  The first half of the novel features long stretches about each character, moving back and forth in time a bit, while the second is choppier from that perspective.  Things come to a head when Lisette is kidnapped. This reads more easily (although it's not an easy read) if you are even minimally familiar with Colombian politics etc (and there is a several page long discussion of Che),  There's a great deal of violence and gore both in Afghanistan and Colombia (including a rather graphic chainsawing in half   of a man strapped to a piano).  The main characters, however, are wonderfully written and, even at their worst, sympathetic.  Some of the others are simply grotesque.  Thanks to the publisher for the arc.  This is mot going to be for everyone- Klay's writing brings scenes of great horror to light in a way few writers have- but it's a worthy read that will make you think.
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Thanks to Edelweiss, Netgalley and the publisher for sharing Phil Klay’s debut novel. Mr. Klay is a great writer and this novel does a fantastic job of highlighting the complicated situation in a country such as Columbia, with multiple factions, corruption, and people trying to make a difference or just live their lives. Overall, I recommend the novel, but found it very dark and lacking in any sense of hope.
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There are all sorts of missionaries in this excellent novel. The first are a group of Americans who build a school in a rural Colombian town to teach reading, math, and about a personal Jesus. When the guerilla came, followed by the paracos, they vanished. Killed? Fled? The other missionaries are those. of justice, technology, survival, all of which leave the people of Santander del Norte terrified and praying for the missionary who brings peace, no matter what that means.

Colombia is the "good war," one where there is belief that good is conquoring evil. For journalist Lisette, weary of covering the hopeless war in Afganistan, it doesn't turn out to be that way. Nor for Mason, an army medic in Afganistan who becomes a liaison with the Colombian special forces. His Colombian counterpart, Juan Pablo, faces reality with a pragmatic attitude, but none of them is on the front line as solidly as Abel, whose family was slaughtered  by one faction and ends up serving that same group.

The first sections of the book that include Mason are too full of acronyms, like some kind of deadly secret boys' club. It makes it hard for non-military readers to be part of the story. This distancing from the reader may be intentional, with the endless fighting and death deflected in an alphabet soup. This dehumanizing way of waging war has spread across the globe, and no one knows this better than Mason.  

As with any novel with several points of view, you'll be more invested in some than others. This is true of "Missionaries." But all of these points of view are needed to make the story complete. It's a devastating tale, worth telling.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for access to this title.

4.5 stars.
``Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader
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