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'Ilium,' by Lea Carpenter: An Excerpt

Set in the dark world of international espionage, with settings from London to Mallorca, Croatia, Paris, and Cap Ferret, Ilium is the gripping and riveting story of one young female British recruit who becomes a perfect asset in a complex covert operation.
Lea Carpenter •
Jan 11st, 2024

In 1985, CIA agent William Buckley was kidnapped in Beirut and assassinated by Hezbollah. Twenty-three years later, Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a CIA-led car bombing in Damascus. This revenge play is the inspiration for Lea Carpenter's stunning new novel coming out on January 16.

Following an intriguing cast of characters around the world, Ilium is the story of a young woman who gets drawn into a joint CIA/Mossad operation to assassinate a Russian intelligence officer and oligarch. Imbued with an insider’s knowledge of these high-stakes special ops, Carpenter writes about war’s subjectivity and how a hero to one side can be an assassin to the other. Ilium is immersive storytelling at its finest, a contemplation of who we are and come to be, a work reminiscent of the late John le Carré.

Praise for Ilium:

“Spellbindingly-plotted and told in frank, elegant prose, Ilium is a beautiful book about love, war, and innocence lost. Carpenter’s depiction of espionage is captivating, while the questions the novel surfaces about identity are perfectly devastating.” —Lisa Taddeo, author of Animal

“Sharp and riveting, Ilium is a literary novel that reads like a psychological thriller, a journey to a secret place of intrigue and betrayals.” —Yiyun Li, author of The Book of Goose

Ilium delivers it all - complex characters, sparkling prose, glamorous international settings. A tremendously satisfying read.” —Chris Pavone, author of Two Nights in Lisbon

“A smart, compelling thriller.” - Town & Country

“The tension of espionage, grief, and longing come together in this brilliant, original work.” - Minneapolis Star Tribune

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Ilium by Lea Carpenter: An Excerpt

Could she feel them?

The two sets of eyes on her, that day in Trafalgar Square, one belonging to a young man on a skateboard, the other to an artist painting watercolors by the statue of King George IV. Or were there more than two sets, maybe there were four, maybe more. How many people were watching her that day and what were they looking for, or, guarding her against. And was it only men or was there a woman watching, too, usually there is a woman as women are less likely to elicit suspicion. What did they see in her. Whatever it was, it was something she had failed to see in herself, some singular mark of significance, something that made her uniquely valuable. And so, as she boarded that bus in Central London that day, the same bus she boarded every even slightly rainy day at that time in her life, she had no idea she was being watched. The only thing on her mind was hunger, and she was chastising herself for skipping breakfast then wasting time at work, as a result of which she was, at that moment, late to lunch. She was asking herself if she was the only person in the world who ate alone most days and when and if that would change. She was running casually through a familiar list of things she knew she could improve in her life.

At the top of that list was, be less boring, followed closely by, take new risks. She boarded the bus and, as always, took any window seat she could find, preferably at the back, where no one would bother her. She was a creature of habit, part of the problem with that list. As the bus pulled into traffic, she looked back and could see a small crowd gathering on the steps of the National Gallery, reminding her of another thing she was missing. She added to the list, learn more about the world.

If she had looked a little more closely, she might have noticed a man standing slightly apart from the crowd, just below the entrance to the museum. The museum was opening late that day to launch a new exhibit of old master drawings. If she had looked a little more closely the man on the stairs would have stood out to her not because he was wearing dark glasses even in the light rain. Or because he was wearing an ill-fitting sweater with the Manchester United logo, the one with a devil in the center. She would have noticed him because he was handsome, and she was young and single then, and not happy about the latter. It would not have occurred to her that those glasses and that sweater were selected explicitly to distract you from the man’s looks. He was handsome in a way it was hard not to notice. His looks were an inconvenience.

He had arrived in London early that morning from Paris. On his flight, he had read all about the young woman, though there was not much to read. He had learned why she had been chosen, and though he would ultimately be the one to approve this operation and her role in it, he always had doubts, starting out, about new recruits. Especially for a case like this. It was his nature to anticipate catastrophe, to believe no one is who they seem to be. And it was his absolute conviction that the perfectly innocent asset did not exist, innocence being a chimera, in his world. You see, the man on the steps of the National Gallery that rainy morning in Central London had grown up in a world far away from the world of the young woman on the bus, in a country defined not by its long-lost empire or its football stars, by Shakespeare or Churchill or errant princes, but rather by poverty, civil wars, a rich history of loss. His world had hardened him early on and formed the essence of what made him excel at his job. His job was, above all, making wise assessments about people. His job was seducing you into risk. “Life and death work, this,” one of his colleagues put it once, joking not joking. Though the truth is, a lot of espionage is simply watching and waiting—speaking of be less boring. A lot of espionage is marking time, holding out for a reckoning that just might save a life. Some spies he knew referred to their profession, as, simply, babysitting.

“People are children and children are fickle and cruel,” was what his first boss had said. His first boss, who had no children, who taught him the First Rule of spy craft was not do unto others as you would have others do unto you but rather, mind your six. Watch your back. And yet for all his cold- blooded worldview, the man on the stairs of the National Gallery that day watched as the bus picked up speed and as the young woman, seated in the back by a window, traced the outline of a heart on her fog-stained window. From this simple act he drew several conclusions. She was a romantic, a dreamer, an optimist. She was interested in love. She was open to experience.

The period right before the recruitment of a new asset is defined by the knowledge you are about to change someone’s life. That you will tell every lie you need to tell to do it. You will manipulate, control, abuse, seduce, deny. You will spoil and bribe, you will backflip off any high dive. You will ruthlessly promise her the moon and believe you can deliver it. Above all you will convince her she is operating with free will, she is in control, this is her chance. You will do these things because achieving your goal is far more urgent than any consequences of breaking her heart. And the man on the stairs of the National Gallery that day knew from breaking hearts. And from broken ones.

He had waited a long time to find this young woman, and he did not plan to let her go. He knew that her bus was headed to Oxford Circus, just a short distance away. He knew that there she would eat in the small sandwich shop she liked while reading the Daily Mail on her phone. Her need for routine, her taste for gossip, these things were neither novel nor rare, but they indicated an emptiness. And that emptiness was one thing he and his colleagues, one colleague above all, could not have predicted yet from which they would profit. The young woman was not yet trained, or even particularly educated, but she was dissatisfied, the hallmark of vulnerability. And as she traced that heart on the foggy window the man on the stairs removed his glasses. He closed his eyes. If you had been standing near him you might have noticed he seemed emotional and wondered if those were tears, or raindrops, in his eyes. What you could not possibly have known was that those tears were tears of relief. A very long wait was over, its reckoning a bird in his hand. And now something new could be born.

Excerpted from Ilium by Lea Carpenter. Copyright © 2024 by Lea Carpenter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

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