A trenchant near-future satire-cum-espionage thriller rooted deeply in today's headlines, Looking for the Mahdi is the story of a middle-aged, androgynous female journalist who is roped into smuggling Halton, a government android ("fabricant"), into the ultra-dangerous, fictitious Mideast country of Khuruchabja to act as bodyguard to that nation's young new prince. Our heroine is a walking bag of bile. Embittered by her past experiences in Khuruchabja, and the banality and obsequiousness of her profession, she lashes out at anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path.
Traveling as a man under the name Kay Bee Sulaiman, our heroine travels with Halton to an orbital space station, where they are given a mysterious "microflake" by some government weasel. Thence they head Earthward to Khuruchabja, where they are immediately waylaid by a gang of thugs who rough up Kay Bee, demand the microflake, and are quickly and efficiently killed by Halton. The plot thickens when it is learned that a woman in the company of the aforementioned baddies (and waxed along with them) was none other than a wife of the prince Halton has been assigned to guard. Naturally, the $64,000 Question is: what's on the flake? It's a question that grows more and more urgent as our pair of mismatched heroes find themselves fighting for their lives.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, which gave Reagan-era novelists a heat-and-serve villian, SF hasn't seen too many good political thrillers, particularly ones bold enough to confront the pressure cooker that is the Middle East. Looking for the Mahdi, therefore, is a stirring, energetic piece of work, not merely for its topicality but also for Wood's fine characterization. Rather than offering us a glued-together collage of action and espionage scenes, Wood roots the entire tale in the growing relationship between Kay Bee and Halton. Kay Bee in particular is a remarkable character. Wood writes in Kay Bee's first-person perspective, giving us a front-row seat to the shattering changes she is forced to go through as she is thrown headfirst into a conflict that not only dredges up a past she had hoped to put behind her forever, but forces her to come to terms with glaring weaknesses in herself that she will have to overcome if she has a prayer of surviving. That Wood can open this novel with a character who is resolutely unlikable, and manage to create sympathy in readers over the course of the narrative, is some praiseworthy writing.
Plotwise, Looking for the Mahdi doesn't offer a great deal that's spectacularly new. Readers with a healthy background in cloak-and-dagger material will find a story that is essentially formula dressed up with imaginative SFnal twists. Surprises aren't too terribly surprising. Ruthless criticisms of world politics and the media? Seen it. But when done with class, it still works. Some folks may find the climax a bit too good to be true. I didn't find it unbelievable myself, but I admit Wood does walk a real tightrope. On the whole, by virtue of solid characterization and brisk prose that has no patience for the squeamish, the lazy, or the terminally PC, this novel marks a winning debut for Wood. Keep an eye out for more.