Review: A Conspiracy of Ravens by Terrence McCauley

A Conspiracy of Ravens by Terrence McCauley is the third book in the James Hicks series, where Hicks has finally discovered his true enemy: a criminal organization known as The Vanguard.

The University is an elite intelligence agency that has been operating for years, tracking down terrorists and several other high-profile criminals. James Hicks is The University’s new Dean, and he has his work cut out for him. After successfully hunting down key operatives, Hicks has discovered that he has one powerful enemy: The Vanguard, a crime organization that has as many spies, toys, and trouble-making capabilities as The University itself. 

As Hicks and his University faculty dig deeper into the Vanguard’s activities, the Vanguard pushes back—hard. Hicks’s home is destroyed, and operatives are killed across the globe. The Vanguard operation is not subtle. They send missiles into the heart of New York in the middle of the day. The situation is now open warfare. It will take all of Hicks’s considerable skill and the cooperation of some hesitant international intelligence agencies to stop them.

Terrence McCauley’s A Conspiracy of Ravens is the third novel in his James Hicks series, and it builds closely off the previous two books—a familiarity with plot points in both Sympathy for the Devil and Murder of Crows would be helpful. Now that Hicks knows for certain that The Vanguard is behind several nefarious situations, he brings all his resources—and several outside resources—to bear on stopping them. But there’s a reason The Vanguard is such a successful criminal op: they’re ready for him.

From the opening pages, it’s pretty obvious that the situation is not business as usual. While driving to a meetup with the CIA—a situation that should be pretty confidential, right?—University Dean James Hicks runs into trouble. OMNI, the seemingly all-knowing computer operations system, alerts Hicks that he’s being surveilled. A stolen car, owned by one Michael Spatola of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, is following him. Hicks goes into action:

“I’m in a generous mood tonight,” Hicks told the Operator, “so let’s do Mr. Spatola a favor. Enter the theft of the plates and the vehicle into the police network. Say the suspects should be considered armed and dangerous and are believed to be heading for the D.C. area.”

More keyboard clicks. “Doing it now, sir.” 

Another idea came to him. “Show me the closest patrol unit on my map.”

A few more clicks. “I’ve just posted the location of the closest unit to your position on your map, sir. The blue icon is the closest police car; a county sheriff’s deputy manning a speed trap approximately three miles and closing from your current position. The tail car is the red icon on your map, while your car is black.”

Hicks would have preferred a state trooper, but at least a county cop wasn’t some Barney Fife looking to be a hero. 

Hicks pulled the gloves tighter on his fingers. “Plot the nearest off-ramp between here and the speed trap. Something that gives me easy access back to the highway.”

A blue line appeared on the map of his dashboard screen. “There’s an off-ramp approximately two miles ahead of you, sir, but be advised: you may not be able to outrun the BMW. It’s got a twin 445 horsepower V8 engine. With all due respect, sir, that’s a tough engine for an old Buick to beat.” 

Hicks smiled. That’s why I’ve got an Aston Martin V12 engine under the hood. “Consider me advised.”

Action is the name of the game in McCauley’s novel. From the opening pages to the attacks on American soil to the streets of Berlin, there are gun fights, car chases, and explosions aplenty to energize the story. McCauley has a particular talent for writing action sequences. At no point does the reader get lost in the explanations of what’s going on, and this is a tricky thing to pull off. Probably one of the strongest scenes is when Hicks’s home comes under direct fire. 

First, an explanation of Hicks’s home. It’s a bunker that was specially built to be undetectable. It spans the basement space of three buildings. Think: the kinda place Batman would like to hang out. While Hicks is not a particularly “homey” kinda guy—he prefers working—it’s still nice to have a place to relax, even though the place is dominated by OMNI and all kinds of security features—one of the most important being that no one knows it’s there

Yet, there are missiles heading right towards him: 

Hicks grabbed the black knapsack that served as his bug-out bag from the armory and threw it over his left shoulder…. It wasn’t enough to survive an apocalypse, but it would be enough to keep him alive for the next day or so. “My position? How the hell does it know where…?” 

His handheld and desktop began blaring a proximity alert generated by OMNI, the same alert that had sounded in his car when the DIA had used a Valkyrie drone to try to kill him two months before. The drone’s weapons system had just locked onto his location.

“Drone’s weapons system just went hot,” Jason reported. “Jets are still scrambling, but won’t be there in time.” 

Hicks pocketed the handheld and slipped the tiny earpiece into his ear as he opened the hatch and moved up to the apartment. A Valkyrie-class drone could carry anything from a Hellfire missile to a biological weapon. The scrubbers on the bunker’s ventilation could neutralize a bio-attack and the bunker had been designed to withstand a nuclear bomb detonating somewhere in Manhattan. But it wouldn’t withstand a direct hit from a Hellfire missile. 

McCauley guides you through the action sequences: he gives you a timer (in the case of the above, Hicks had four minutes), he gives you a worst-case scenario (for example, a direct hit by a Hellfire missile), and then Hicks’s decision based on the given information. While that might sound like a clinical explanation, when you’re reading, you get swept up in the moment because McCauley’s style is so effective. You wonder: has it been four minutes? Three? How much time does he have left? And, because you’ve read the possible scenarios—from good to bad—you know what’s gonna happen when you hear, “OMNI’s latest analysis of the radar signature give a high probability that it’s definitely carrying something heavy, probably a Hellfire.”

Terrence McCauley’s A Conspiracy of Ravens will fill a few page-turning hours with some fast-paced action and spy intrigue. 


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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.


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