Day 6

Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton team up for new novel State of Terror. But should you read it?

State of Terror may be 2021's most intriguing crossover; it was co-authored by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and award-winning Canadian writer Penny Louise. But is it worth the read? Our book columnist Becky Toyne has her say.

Political thriller also takes not-so-veiled pot shots at Donald Trump

State of Terror is a novel by Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton. It was released on Oct. 12. (Jean-Francois Berube, Simon & Schuster, Joe McNally)

It might be the most intriguing crossover of 2021.

Bestselling Canadian author Louise Penny and the former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have combined their talents to co-author State of Terror, a new political thriller that was released on Oct. 12.

"The fingerprints of both women are all over this book," said Day 6 book columnist Becky Toyne.

WATCH | The National's Adrienne Arsenault speaks with Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, Louise Penny on the catharsis of writing a political thriller

2 months ago
8:06
The National’s Adrienne Arsenault talks to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Canadian crime author Louise Penny about the catharsis of writing about a female secretary of state undoing the damage of a reckless, alt-right-supporting former president in the political thriller State of Terror. 8:06

The book follows a novice U.S. Secretary of State, Ellen Adams, who was recently appointed by her political rival. As she learns the ropes of the role, Adams must navigate the challenges that come with the job — as well as being a widowed mother to adult children.

The plot stems from a question Penny asked Clinton about her biggest fears during her tenure in former president Barack Obama's inner circle.

"It's … her fear in the middle of the night as the secretary of state about nuclear war — and as a mother, about the danger to your children, especially, when you're in a position of such power," Toyne said. 

Character relationships

The book draws on Clinton's political experience, and it features homages to some people close to her personal and professional lives.

One such character is Betsy Jameson, who is Ellen's oldest friend and a State Department counsellor.

"You learn in the acknowledgements that this is based on a real friendship in Hillary Clinton's life," Toyne said. "And the relationship between the two women in the book is carried all the way through the story."

Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, speaks during an event promoting The Book of Gutsy Women at the Southbank Centre in London in 2019. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Toyne says Ellen and Betsy's relationship is the "beating heart of the book." She praises the characters for their repartee and the "grammar games" they engage in between each other, which make for a wonderful reading experience.

"They have this little code so that if they're communicating by email or text message, they'll always know that really is the other person," she said. "[One of them would say] something like 'a dangling modifier walks into a bar,' and then the other person has to answer it."

It ticks all the boxes for a thriller.- Becky Toyne

Toyne says the book's fictional setting has also allowed Clinton to get a lot of her political shots in at Donald Trump, who defeated her in the 2016 presidential election.

"The new administration is coming in after a one-term Republican president," she said. "His name was Eric Dunn, who even people who were loyal to him jokingly behind his back called him 'Eric the Dumb.'"

Eric is portrayed as completely incompetent, surrounding himself with people who were loyal to him, Toyne explained. He ends up being kicked out of the office, then spends his time afterwards playing golf in Florida.

"It's given Hillary Clinton an opportunity to to say a lot of things about Donald Trump … that she perhaps couldn't say in real life," Toyne said. "She can just say, 'Well, Eric, the dumb president, he's a little bit [like] Trump but he's not really Trump.'"

Clinton, right, and Donald Trump shake hands ahead of a debate during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Toyne says Clinton took some political shots at Trump in State of Terror through a character called Eric Dunn. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Too many thrills

Although Toyne enjoyed Ellen's relationship with some of the other characters, she felt State of Terror's climax was lacking.

"I think it started really, really strongly and ended really, really strongly," she said. "And in the middle, it got a bit confusing and a little bit difficult to follow."

"It sort of got overstuffed with characters who weren't given enough screen time to really get a grip on who they were."

Although the book is a thriller, Toyne says it was trying to be too thrilling at times, which was "exhausting."

She says thrillers should be more like roller-coasters with ups and downs.

"You have to have something really shocking happen, and then you have to calm down a bit and have a little bit of character development, a little bit of intrigue, a bit of curiosity, a bit of fear," she said.

Should you read it?

Toyne knows some people won't read State of Terror simply because of Clinton's involvement.

"If you're a Hillary Clinton hater, you're not going to read this book, and nothing I say is going to make you read this novel," she said.

Becky Toyne is Day 6's book columnist.

But for those that are considering reading it, Toyne recommends you add it to your bookshelf.

"It ticks all the boxes for a thriller. It is entertaining, it has the insider insults, it has the thrills.... So it does everything it's supposed to do," she said.

"So yeah, if you're someone who thinks that you might want to read this book, you should read it, and I think that you will like it."


Written by Mouhamad Rachini, Produced by Laurie Allan.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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