Book Review: Alias Emma by Ava Glass

Ava Glass' Alias Emma is a race-against-the-clock thriller about a British spy who has twelve hours to deliver her asset across London after Russia hacks the city’s security cameras. Here's Janet Webb's review!

Alias Emma is the debut book of a thrilling new series by Ava Glass. Readers will not be able to put it down. Emma Makepeace is a newly minted British spy who is given a brutal first assignment: She has twelve hours to bring the son of Russian dissidents into protective custody. Glass sets the scene impeccably.

The sun was setting over one of the most expensive streets in the world when the assassins arrived.


The CCTV camera on the central London corner recorded long blades of golden light stretched out across limestone walls as two men walked down the exclusive avenue.

The assassins keep their heads tilted down so no camera recorded their features as they slipped out of the shadows. The CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras Glass references are those that form the backbone of the City of London’s legendary Ring of Steel perimeter. The other elements are control zones and restricted access to the city center, but it’s the silent, omnipresent cameras the criminals fear most. There are almost a million CCTV cameras in London—one camera for every ten people. Inside the security cordon, Londoners can expect to be surveilled upwards of seventy times daily. How is Emma supposed to covertly bring someone into protective custody if she and her asset are visible on closed circuit TV? Hold that thought.

Emma has worked for a shadowy Agency for two years, but she’s only received one emergency code, a test. A second call-in is the real deal. Ripley—her boss/handler—awaits her. Charles Ripley is nondescript, somewhere between 50 and 60 years-old, wearing a wool suit that “was neither expensive nor cheap,” and shoes that were decent but not polished to a high sheen.

In fact, he was so unmemorable in appearance that if he crossed the street in front of you, you’d be hard-pressed to describe him five minutes later. As he’d told her when they first started working together, “Invisibility is a spy’s greatest asset.”

Emma and Ripley discuss the latest murders, which Ripley characterizes as a “professional job, precisely like the others.” They know the Russian military spy agency—the GRU—is behind the brazen hits. The GRU are after a pair of former Russian scientists who escaped the motherland years earlier. They are especially anxious to silence Elena Primalov. The British have brought the couple in from the cold and given them protective custody, but their son Michael Primalov won’t walk away from his medical career as a pediatrician. Elena is frantic because she knows the Russians will focus all their might on Michael once they realize his parents are out of reach. That’s where Emma comes in. 

“Elena is one of our top assets, and that makes Michael critical to us. We need to get him to safety as quickly as possible. Do whatever you must to convince him to let us protect him. Be his friend. Earn his trust. Whatever it takes. Just bring him to safety before they kill him.”

The next morning Emma fakes a fall on a running path that Michael frequents, confident he’ll stop to help her. He does and after a few remarks, she tells him she works for a government agency that wants to protect him. Emma asks him if he’ll enter protective custody, warning him that if he doesn’t, he’ll be killed.  Michael turns her down, asking to be left in peace. While he understands his mother is worried, he just wants to be left alone. Off he runs. Emma is at a standstill when she notices two very proficient runners following in Michael’s wake. Something about them bothers her.

It was how they ran. They moved with remarkable accuracy. Each stride the same length as the next. They were in perfect sync. That kind of precision is drilled into you in the military.

The Russian military. They don’t assassinate Michael: Emma figures they are trailing him to see if he is under British surveillance. She fills in Ripley and asks for help but he tells her she’s on her own. What? How can she do this solo? Silence. Finally Ripley lays it out.

When he did speak, there was a new urgency in his tone. “I wouldn’t have chosen you for this job if I did not believe you were perfectly capable of handling it. You’ve been trained for this your entire life. You’ve been ready for a long time. You have to handle this one on your own.”

Disguised as a nurse, Emma confronts Michael at the hospital where someone else is also faking their identity (one of the runners from the park disguised as a maintenance worker). Emma tells Michael Russian agents have infiltrated the hospital but he won’t budge. Stymied, she follows him when he leaves the hospital that evening. Two Russian men get perilously close to Michael so she springs into action. She calls out, asking for directions, shifting their attention from Michael. 

Still smiling, she gave a last burst of speed and leaped, aiming a flying kick at the shorter man’s chest.

Emma fights desperately against the two assailants, but a thumb pressed against her carotid artery has her starting to lose consciousness. Michael slams his laptop on the man’s head, saving Emma’s life. She tells Michael she can’t fight again—that they must run—and he finally believes her. Emma calls Ripley, but his lieutenant, Ed Masterson, answers. She doesn’t know exactly why she’s suspicious but she hedges when Ed questions her.  She and Michael unearth a hidden data card left for her by Ripley which she reads on Michael’s phone.

The message was brief and blunt.

Change of plans. I think I know who’s behind the attacks. If I’m right, this is more dangerous than we feared. Don’t bring the guest home. Take him to the neighbors. Avoid all cameras, they’re not ours right now. Be careful with M. No calls. No tech. Move fast. Stay dark.

Translation—Ripley is not available to help Emma, he’s gone dark. M (Ed Masterson, his second-in-command) is not to be trusted. The neighbors are M16, which means Emma must get Michael to their headquarters across the river at Vauxhall Cross—while avoiding all CCTV cameras—thus they can’t use buses, cars, the Tube, ATMs, cellphones, or credit cards. It’s a race against time: To save Michael’s life (and likely her own), she must move fast and stay dark.

Alias Emma is a fabulous debut thriller. Emma Makepeace is independent and intelligent, with an intriguing background. She’s been compared to James Bond, high praise indeed. Readers will rip through the pages as Michael and Emma confront an intimidating array of foes.

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