Firefly by Henry Porter

Thank you to Netgalley, Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press, and Henry Porter for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Quotations may not reflect the final published book.

A thirteen-year-old Syrian boy, code-named Firefly, begins an arduous journey from a Turkish refugee camp hoping to reach Europe and bring his family to safety, away from the darkness and devastation of his home country. But this precocious boy possess valuable information about a terrorist cell that can prevent a terrorist attack. When the English Special Investigative Service learns of Firefly, they enlist ex-agent Paul Samson, an Arabic speaker and former refuge from Lebanon, to track him, gain his trust, and learn what he knows. Samson is aided by the beautiful and brilliant psychologist Anastasia who works at the Lesbos refuge camp and has witnessed the horror experienced by migrants as well as Vuk, an “unusual but reliable” and usually drunk Serbian fixer. Unaware of Samson’s efforts to rescue him, Firefly follows the dangerous migrant trail where he faces assault, betrayal, disappointment, and despair. He’s joined by the carefree Ikfar and his loyal dog Moon as he races to the Macedonian-Serbian border. But the terrorists want Firefly’s information badly and will kill to retrieve it. Challenged by the weather and terrain, Samson fights to stay ahead of the terrorists and protect Firefly who has his own reasons for remaining hidden.

Firefly excels at conveying the experiences of refugees, particularly those without proper documentation and minors. From harrowing water crossings to overcrowded camps and transit stations, the sights, sounds, and smells are vividly depicted. Firefly encounters myriad fellow travelers from various countries who are all hoping for a better life at the end of the migrant trail. Smugglers take advantage of the desperate while NGOs and relief agencies attempt to improve the conditions of the people in their care.

The pressures on the host countries also come into play. Borders are constantly being opened or closed; transportation is unreliable. Yet, the refugees continue to come. Anastasia “concluded rather bitterly that whatever happened, it would always fall to the Greek islands to deal with the influx. ‘They are drowning in our seas, crawling up our beaches, and that isn’t going to stop soon,’ she said. ‘Just because Europe has suddenly decided that these people are not wanted doesn’t mean they aren’t going to give up getting on those little rafts. They have nothing to lose –there’s nothing where they come from.”

As Samson trails Firefly, he encounters the bureaucracy of intelligence agencies from multiple European countries and sees the politics and behind the scenes negotiating at play. Priorities shift and develop depending on which agencies have the upper hand.

All this is fascinating, and I don’t recall a book that presents as complete and harrowing a picture of refugee migration, particularly from a boy’s perspective. It is heartbreaking to know these conditions are far from fiction and that so many people struggle to leave war-torn and ravished areas for a peaceful existence.

The book is also action-packed and suspenseful. For two days, I hardly put it down, and I certainly was glued to it for the last quarter. As comprehensive as the book is in terms of representing a refugee’s experience, it never detracts from the narrative or bogs down the story. Each detail seems essential for the whole. For the most part, I liked the writing style and thought it was written well, although I did find that the transitions between sections focusing on Firefly and those focusing on Samson were abrupt and awkward. It’s possible that in the final version of the book, the book design will provide a better indication of when the story changes perspective.

Firefly was an interesting and sympathetic character, and I couldn’t help but like him and hope for the best for him. At the same time, I wondered if he was unrealistically precocious. He is presented in completely positive terms which feels inauthentic. For being a central character, I thought Samson was underdeveloped and I would like to have had more backstory for him. It was illustrative to have characters of so many nationalities with speaking so many languages, and it was interesting how language served to bind or separate characters.

While this would fall into the thriller/suspense categories and is worth reading on that alone, I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about refuges, especially from Syria, to read this book. Although I’ve read books that have incisive portrayals of refugee camps I felt like I had a greater understanding of the challenges refugees face in transit after reading this book.

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