“Lie Down With Lions”

If people knew how hard some writers work, they wouldn’t think writing a novel was such a cool gig. Ken Follett is one of those writers who put in the time and effort to get it right. “Lie Down With Lions” was published seven years ago, but I downloaded it for my Kindle in less than 10 seconds because it’s set in Afghanistan, a country in the news today.

The war then was Afghanis against the Russians. The story centers around three people: Jane, Jean-Pierre and Ellis. Both men betray Jane’s trust — Ellis is spying on Jane’s friends in Paris who are anti-government activists. The only problem is, he’s fallen in love with her. She finds out about his secret and takes off for Afghanistan with Jean-Pierre, a doctor who is also a Communist and working with the Russians.

It takes the greater part of the novel for Jane to realize that although Jean-Pierre is a doctor sworn to do no harm, he is responsible for all the raids on the supply convoys moving across Afghanistan through the Five Lions Valley. She and Jean-Pierre are married and have an infant daughter by the time Ellis shows up again.

Ellis is still working with the CIA, this time on a mission for the President. Ellis is charged with the job of getting the different factions of Afghanis to work together against the Russians. In return, the US will supply Afghanistan with anti-aircraft weapons.

A mountainous country, Afghanistan is home to several cultural groups, separated by language and limited travel. To get them to work together, Ellis brings in explosives and demonstrates the bombing of a bridge to slow down the Russian forces. The moment Jane and Ellis see each other, they know they have unfinished business, but Jane is attached to Jean-Pierre.

When Jane realizes that Jean-Pierre is working against the Afghanis, she is again betrayed by the man who is supposed to love her. She leaves her husband and goes with Ellis who needs to deliver the treaty among the Afghanis to the US. They can’t take the normal route, however, because by this time, Jean-Pierre and his Russian connections are searching for the couple, who are instantly recognizable because they are traveling with a baby.

Ellis, Jane and the baby are led by an Afghani guide across the mountains to Pakistan using a route traveled by only the most seasoned and motivated. Jane recalls the trip to the Five Lions Valley and knows that the trip out will only be harder. Yet, Ellis refuses to leave her behind.

The novel builds to an excruciating climax — their guide has run off in the middle of the night to find the Russians, their horse has fallen off the side of a cliff, and Jane holds the detonator of explosives that Ellis has planted that could bury the Russian troops who have caught up with them.

I’m not going to spoil the cliffhanger for anyone, because it’s just too good. Along the way, you’ll learn about Afghani culture. They are tough people living in tough conditions, but it doesn’t mean they don’t feel emotions the same as anyone else. Jane voices her disgust with the warrior mentality — how men are willing to die for their cause and raise sons to do the same.

I’ll resurrect my grading scale for this novel: On a scale of 10 p.m. for a so-so book that I can put down at the end of the day, to 5 a.m. for a book I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, I give “Lie Down With Lions” a 4 a.m. rating.