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Ilium by Lea Carpenter: A Review

Ilium is a fascinating spy novel that doesn't feel like a spy novel at all. Coming of age as a CIA asset, a young women discovers that humanity is the currency of espionage in a war that never ends.

Author:  Lea Carpenter

Age & Genres: Adult Spy Fiction

Series: Not a series

Publisher: Knopf

Print Length:  241 pages

Published: January 2024

Read: January 2024

Cover of Ilium cover by Lea Carpenter: Shows woman in silhouette on mustard color background


After the death of her parents, a young woman is dissatisfied with her boring, predictable life.  When she meets Marcus, a wealthy older man who lives an exotic lifestyle but also owns the private garden that she has envied since her youth, the match feels like fate. They are married in Mallorca, honeymoon in Croatia, and travel to Paris for her husband’s mysterious business.

Only she quickly discovers that this business  will involve her. She is asked by Marcus’s partner Raja to pretend to be an art curator for wealthy clients. Somewhat fascinated and confused, she agrees. She isn’t given much information beyond memorizing a backstory that isn’t hers and learning about one family in particular with a complicated history. But she is told not to worry and just watch and listen. 

Just as she is being brought into this life of espionage, Marcus dies of health conditions that she wasn’t told about until after their recent wedding. He leaves her with a single line note: “Raja will take care of you.” So, she and Raja and a team of CIA assets enmesh themselves in the lives and family of an aging Russian spy and assassin. They continue the “forever wars” of espionage that never really started anywhere and certainly didn’t end with the Cold War.


Overall Impression: To know someone, is to love them. This is the adage on which the novel truly hinges. Humanity is at the core of all human beings, even our villains and enemies. Espionage often requires assets to get close to other assets or enemies. Lines are blurred, enemies become family, and more and more people are pulled into the forever wars. 

Writing Ilium, a nod to the ancient city of Troy or Ilion, the Trojan Wars, and a series of famous paintings by that name, points to the fact that the novel is more literary fiction than a suspenseful spy thriller.  But I think the writing of the voice of this novel makes it most memorable.  A jaded but somewhat lyrical voice is describing the innocence and naivety required for her very first job in espionage.  The writing is as dark as it is beautiful.

Plot: This is certainly a character driven novel about the psychology involved for all of the different players in espionage. The recruiters. The assets. The marks. And those just caught in the crossfires.  The pacing of the plot was a bit… I hesitate to say slow, because “slow” doesn’t capture its complexity. It was unusual.  There wasn’t an extraordinary amount of plot. Because the narrator was a jaded older version of herself and who was also a somewhat omniscient narrator, the motivations behind each action were center stage.  It was important to her not just to tell the facts of the story, but also to show how and why the characters were making the decisions that they were making. 

My favorite part?  I was so immersed that I never realized that I didn’t know the name of the main character.  It is never disclosed. I didn’t realize until I went to write this blog that the name of the narrator is never used.  I was her and she was me, and I never found it odd at all. 

Innocence, naivety, revenge, . None of them are really as simple as they

Rating: 8/10 

Content warnings: Violence. Coercion.


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