Mark Russinovich takes readers on another wild ride

Trojan Horse (sequel to Zero Day)

Mark Russinovich is a pretty technical fellow – I guess that’s why they gave him that title at Microsoft. And that’s in contrast to the authors of so many other novels in the “cyberthriller” genre. I usually have mixed feelings when one of my favorite crime/mystery/adventure writers decides to venture into the hot new topic of cybercrime and cyberterrorism. The problem is that I know too much – at least in regard to how computer systems work – and I often find myself shaking my head at the author’s obvious lack of understanding of the technology.

Not so with Mark’s books. I don’t have to worry about technical mistakes distracting from my enjoyment of the storyline. His first public venture into the world of fiction, Zero Day, was a great first novel but had a few rough edges. Mark obviously learned from the experience, and Trojan Horse comes off as a little more polished. As with most thrillers (and indeed, with much of the fiction in all genres today), there are some improbable plot elements. But the character development is good enough so that you’re able to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. And a wild ride it is.

As seems to be the current trend in fiction, Mark’s second book is more or less a continuation of the first, in that we have the same protagonists we got to know previously. I think authors are taking this approach in part because it’s easier. It’s easier for readers, who are more comfortable with the familiar. One could conclude that today’s readers are lazier, but I think it’s more that they’re just busier and don’t have the time and energy to invest in getting to know brand new characters. It’s also easier for the writer, especially when the lead character is somewhat of an extension of the author him/herself, as I think most would guess is the case with Mark’s Jeff Aiken. Whatever the reasons, it’s a tactic that has worked well for numerous best selling mainstream novelists and I can’t fault Mark for following that path.

The basic premise is one that’s extremely timely and also of special concern to me and many others: the volatile situation that we see in the Middle East is the tip of an iceberg – a war that’s already being waged not on battlefields, at sea or in the sky but in the nebulous realms of cyberspace. The plot is complicated, journeying into the complex world of international politics which often does make strange (and dangerous) bedfellows, exploring alliances between our “frenemy,” China, and major player in the former administration’s declared Axis of Evil, Iran. Of course Israel figures into it all in a big way, too.

Aspiring novelists are always advised to “write what you know,” and there is no doubt that Mark knows his way around the internals of a computer system and the workings of a malicious software attack better than any other novelist out there. His stories are enjoyable, but they’re educational, as well. And most of all, they are cautionary tales. Is it likely that a mild-mannered computer consultant like Jeff Aiken would be caught up in the kind of jet-hopping spy-thriller intrigue that unfolds in this story? Maybe not – but the events within which Aiken and partner Daryl Haugen are operating are very likely imminent, if they’re not happening already. And seeing it through Jeff’s eyes gives us – especially those of us who are in the IT industry – a unique perspective to which we can relate.

IT pros are busy people and security professionals are kept on their toes by the day-to-day challenges of keeping company networks safe in an increasingly connected world, but it’s time to focus beyond the business ramifications of our security policies and practices and look at the broader implications. If you can carve out a chunk of time to indulge in a little not-so-light end-of-summer reading, Trojan Horse is an eye opener that will both delight you with its technical accuracy and competent storytelling and scare you with its blunt predictions of the cyber nightmare that’s coming at us like a freight train.

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