THE DEVIL'S TEARS is the debut thriller from ex Army Officer Steven Horne, as well as the first fictional book I've read set in Timor-Leste. There's an excellent Author's Note at the end of the book that gives a potted history of the struggle in East Timor for those not so familiar with the story.
Knowing that the events described in this book are fictional, but undoubtedly based in the truth of what happened in that small country, so close to our own, ignored by the world for so long, is profoundly distressing. In a quite remarkable balancing act, Steven Horne has avoided a number of potential pitfalls and created a really good thriller, peopled with wonderful characters, maintaining a good pace, with a very engaging story at the centre. There are undoubtedly bad people in this book, in this story, but they aren't overdone. Instead he concentrates on the appalling acts, the brave acts, the sheer tenacity and spirit that makes people triumph over dreadful circumstances.
In another very clever touch, the length of the struggle of the people of East Timor is artfully demonstrated as a doctor is killed in a small village in the hills of East Timor, at the same time that his young daughter Abbey is playing with her two best friends in Australia. That daughter grows up, and with those childhood friends, become involved in the struggle in their own way - as journalist, photographer and publisher. The introduction of the doctor, coincides the introduction of Cesar and Helena da Silva and their three daughters, and it is their struggle to flee the country that we become intimately involved with. Cesar and one of their twin daughters make it out eventually, Helena and the other two girls are trapped. Helena and the girls treatment in East Timor is particularly gruelling to follow. Cesar and his daughter make it to Australia, but their guilt, and worry and not knowing what happened to the others destroys their lives in other ways.
There is a plot within THE DEVIL'S TEARS that interweaves the lives and stories of Abbey and her friends, Cesar, Helena and the girls and the ongoing freedom fight of the East Timorese. Whilst Abbey and David put themselves dangerously on the line in East Timor to report and record the truth, the daily struggle for survival of Helena and family is just as tense, just as frightening. The threat for both comes from particular groups of invading soldiers, and this, as well as the connections between both groups, give the story a tight, personal, very very personal feeling to the tension.
It's not particularly easy to read THE DEVIL'S TEARS, and that undoubtedly comes from the knowledge that events very very like these happened not so far from our own borders. But ultimately, this is a fictional book, a thriller. Does it work in that context? Absolutely. This is a great thriller, telling a good solid story, creating tension, making the reader ride the roller coaster with a good set of believable, sympathetic, brave and characters.