Special Envoy: Priscilla Journeys into Arab Islamic Territory Review by Virginia Phiri and Elinettie K. Chabwera, Ph.D.

May 16, 2020 | Special Envoy Reviews

Title:        Special Envoy: Priscilla Journeys into Arab Islamic Territory
Author:     M. J. Simms-Maddox
Genre:      Fiction, Adult, Political/Terrorism Thriller, Mystery, Espionage, Religion, Black American Diaspora, Middle Eastern History, Travel, Romance
Rating: Highly recommended
Reviewer(s): Jointly by Virginia Phiri and Elinettie K. Chabwera, Ph.D.

The Review:

M. J. Simms-Maddox, a daring author who fearlessly delves into sensitive political issues, has carved a niche among the most celebrated creative writers of our time. Most notable is her writing style— authorial vocabulary, expressive complexity, grammar, and tonal quality—which most closely matches that of Tom Clancy’s Locked On.

Special Envoy: Priscilla Journeys into Arab Islamic Territory is the fourth installment in what is now ‘The Priscilla Series.’ The political science professor-turned-fiction writer’s topic is enticing, at center stage—the Middle East in early 1990—with its diverse cultures, politics, and religions. Throughout, the author unleashes the essence of her being. However, it is her writing style that keeps readers turning the pages.

One must first pick up the book, of which there are two formats and versions. The original looks spectacular. Reminiscent of the classics, its cover is a rich red linen with gold inlaid Kirkwall lettering. The glossy, full-color dust jacket portrays a fully covered figure in a crème-colored abaya, walking through a mysterious dark space toward an arched doorway in a kasbah. Even if the subtitle were omitted, the cursors visibly point to a setting of dark, secret activities: nothing could announce the story inside any better. The book’s thick, crème colored paper and its distinctive scent are reminiscent of one’s childhood. The stitching enhances the book’s aesthetic appeal. The author’s name and book title are printed in the headers of even-numbered pages, and the chapter headings appear on odd-numbered pages. This volume is available only on the author’s website.1

Apart from the book’s aesthetic appeal, this novel reads real.

Prepare to be thoroughly immersed in this fast-paced, character-driven, action-packed thriller. Intrigue and suspense hold readers’ attention.

Throughout, Simms-Maddox exposes the vulnerability of the world’s nations threatened by the imminent collapse of global economies. Terrorism abounds.

Learn about many Arab Islamic cultures, that the face of terrorism is not that of a Middle Easterner, and that terrorists are everywhere.

Experience what happens when the so-called “good guys” adopt the ways of the “bad guys” (335-340).

The author also shares insight into what happens behind the scenes of the corridors of power, such as the Office of the President, his top advisors, and Congress, especially the realms of national security, the intelligence community, and global economies yeah, even the palatial estate of a United Arab Emirate emir (303-305).

One can expect surprises since the protagonist, Priscilla, is a feminist traipsing through Arab Islamic territory—first as a courier and then as a special envoy for the United States of America. Her first assignment is to deliver a sealed envelope to some crucial allies in the UAE. Although she has an impressive track record of experience as an aide to an Ohio state senator, a political science professor, a marketing consultant for a successful presidential candidate, a public relations consultant, and, unwittingly, a human rights activist, others inside the diplomatic corps hold résumés that match, even surpass, hers. Also, since Priscilla is an outsider, not a trained diplomat, one can feel the tension mounting and conflict building behind the scenes of the diplomatic corps.

Priscilla accepts the courier assignment not for the money or public recognition but rather to prove that women can also execute so-called sensitive tasks. Another reason is to shake off the mounting pressure from her wedding, which is less than a week away. More significantly, she accepts the mission “in service to her country” because she is exceptionally patriotic. Notwithstanding, Priscilla, an ordinary woman, is adventurous, bright, carefree, and enterprising. Her flaws, however—her tendency to be inconsistent and her phobias—threaten the success of her mission.

Surprisingly, an Emirates Airlines flight attendant, Melanie—who happens to be Priscilla’s CIA agent escort—graciously boosts Priscilla’s morale. So, too, does Abdul-Hakim—Priscilla’s UAE contact—contribute to her level of confidence by recommending she wear a colorful abaya to the meeting with the UAE emirs; Priscilla hates wearing the black one. As the plot unfolds, she and Melanie, together, exude girl power.

Although sexism is glaring throughout the story, the women in Simms-Maddox’s novels are strongwilled, persistent, and perspicacious. Nadeen, for example—the Yemeni widowed daughter-in-law— demonstrates her formidable individuality through her unique choice of generating income. Yet her compassion comes through in her sensitivity to Carlton (Priscilla’s husband, who is an American special op) and commitment to her elderly parents-in-law. Mostly, though, Nadeen is instrumental in aiding the American special ops in putting down the ringleader of a fringe element of Al Qaeda. How fast she unlatches the fence, releasing those enormous canines demonstrates no nonsense (352). Nadeen could easily be Priscilla’s twin from another culture. All the leading women in the narrative connect in sisterhood.

One must, however, question Priscilla’s admiration for the charming Abdul-Hakim, seemingly inappropriate at times. But she succeeds in keeping her thoughts about him to herself:

“He’s royalty, all right. Good looking twerp, too, Priscilla thought as she and Fahima continued their swift stride in lockstep behind Abdul-Hakim” (73).

This is just as well because Arab Islamic laws forbid women from displaying emotions towards men.

The author uses real and meaningful Arabic names, such as Abdul-Hakim Murshid Mus’ab, Fahima, Khalifa Maaz Hajjar, and Arslan Rahal. The supporting cast of characters, including “the boys” in the CIA’s Collective Force (CF) unit of special operatives, represents society’s changing demographics.

From start to finish, Priscilla’s phobias are problematic and exposed at the right times, first upon arrival at the hotel in Ras al-Khaimah and then later. Oh, how one’s heart yearns for her, as the narrator aptly sets the stage for the first incident: “Priscilla rarely stayed in hotel rooms located higher than on the third floor, no matter how exquisite the dwelling. But pretty much everything in the UAE was constructed on a larger scale than in America, or any other Western society, for that matter” (61).

“The higher the elevator had risen, the dizzier Priscilla had become. Her phobias set in big time. She was so nauseous that the world around her seemed to spin out of control. To Priscilla, up was down, and there was no horizon in sight. She felt as if she 2 were on an out-of-control merry-go-round. Even though the elevator had stopped, Priscilla felt as if her body were in motion and as if her head were floating” (61).

“Her acrophobia sets in because of the increased altitude, and her vertigo, by the sheer movement of the elevator” (62). Her hotel suite is on the seventeenth floor, but her meeting with the UAE emirs would be on the seventieth floor of a bank in downtown Dubai, where the elevator is glass! The suspense is riveting.

Readers can see themselves in the White House Situation Room amid everyone who matters, glued to a big screen that shows Priscilla’s entourage strolling swiftly across the marble floor of the bank’s lobby toward the glass elevator for the ride seventy stories up to the executive suites.

The first significant scene in the book is a positive and compelling one, which is rated at nine out of ten points. Priscilla’s only taboo costs her one point when she forces Abdul-Hakim to reach down for the envelope from her hands, an uncalled-for humiliation. One can only surmise that she could not resist ending her special courier mission without a bit of mischief.

Nevertheless, score ‘one’ for Priscilla, who now leads the top-of-the-line to be the special envoy. As incredible as it may seem, she cannot fully believe the success of her courier mission. In a conversation with Melanie, she says, “But I still can’t believe folks actually get paid to do this kind of work. Now what?” (79)

She then heads off to southern Africa to conduct a meeting of the Bernhardt Foundation for Boarding Schools for Zimbabwean and South African Girls. She does not even seem to mind dumping her husband for the trip, which proves how hardcore she is. Her love for southern Africa is apparent. Her first experience there made her a heroine. This time, however, she is unaware that remnants of the South African Nationalists’ Movement—the gazillion-dollar diamond, gold, and platinum conglomerate—remain.

But her trip to Harare is unexpectedly diverted. It is time to initiate her second mission, and she is surprised by it, and so soon.

This time, Priscilla gets to speak to the important people. Her role is to collect vital intel from the Arab leaders’ representatives amid secret negotiations for a peace settlement. It is here that the author inserts little-known facts about the main character, traits that set her apart from the other candidates who were in line for the special envoy assignment in the first place.

As she prepares to meet with the emirs’ representatives at the Ras al-Khaimah Racetrack (228), no one could have prepared her for the encounter that could so easily have aborted this mission. One can feel Priscilla’s disbelief when Abdul-Hakim approaches her in a most “uncharacteristic manner” (211-214). But it would be sometime later (221-225) before she learns the reason behind his “uncharacteristic behavior” and how the emir’s security detail deals with him. One senses her trauma. But she somehow pushes past her pain and goes forward with the meeting with the emirs’ representatives as if nothing ever even happened.

Priscilla accomplishes the first phase of her second mission and then heads off again to the board meeting in Harare, where heat rises (259-264).

Her ordeal at the board meeting sets the stage for what lies ahead for her. Her trek from Harare to Lusaka grows increasingly gruesome and life-threatening when, along the way, she encounters incredible and horrific altercations in Chinhoyi and Chirundu. Each time, her grit ratchets up a notch or two. Yet readers are surprised at how well Priscilla fends for herself while facing all kinds of circumstances and creatures.

Simms-Maddox uses a manifold approach to show what really happens behind the scenes and is often unreported. For instance, while Priscilla is trekking along pothole-filled dirt roads in a high-riding uncovered 3 jeep in the dark of night in southern Africa, “the boys” of the CF unit are fighting terrorists who are trying to thwart her mission in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen and in the heart of Zimbabwe.

Readers are enthralled by the graphic depictions of the eye of the needle in the Jabal al-Hijaz Mountains (307), the wadi on the outskirts of Ash Shihr (323-324), and the modest dwellings of Ash Shihr (344-346). One senses the elemental aesthetics: the tightness of the secret passageway in the mountain and the fear that the soldiers experience listening to but not being able to see or stop their fellow soldiers from being beheaded (307).

Then comes a well-orchestrated crescendo.

The final episodes are illuminated by much blood and gore, revealing what boils in the cauldrons of terrorist groups. The enemy is obscenely callous and determined.

Readers ultimately acquire an appreciation for members of the diplomatic corps, the intelligence gathering community, and special ops, all of whom put their lives on the line “in service to their country. Suspense permeates the atmosphere and serves as a precursor for what happens at the end when readers f ind themselves calling out to the phobia-stricken Priscilla, reaching through the pages, and praying for her, too, as she fights for her life.

“As the slow thump-like movement of the luxury limo lowered into the depths of the Earth, Priscilla’s claustrophobia and vertigo surfaced. It first began when the limo rode onto the ramp inside the closely contained bin. Her heart beat faster. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. She experienced difficulty breathing. Priscilla panicked and squirmed in her seat. There was nothing that anybody could do to help her. Her meclizine was in her luggage, back at the Rainbow Towers Hotel in Harare.

Then, as Harry (Priscilla’s National Security Advisor colleague) attempted to transmit another message to his superior officer about the latest episode in their precarious predicament, his old-style cell phone lost service.

So, apart from Priscilla, Melanie, and Harry, no one else knew that they were inside a limousine, two levels down deep in the Earth, in the parking lot of a technology company in Amman” (369).

Special Envoy reveals the hardened hearts, deceit, greed, and revenge among terrorists and governments, too, while simultaneously revealing the loyalty of many in the diplomatic corps, the intelligence-gathering communities, and the special ops.

One final note: Although Special Envoy can be read as a standalone, readers will miss the essence of the main character and how she came to be the woman she was meant to be. This book is, after all, the fourth installment in the Priscilla series. Start with the prequel, Priscilla Engaging in the Game of Politics. Then read Mystery in Harare: Priscilla’s Journey into Southern Africa—early post-apartheid Zimbabwe and apartheidruled South Africa, followed by Three Metal Pellets. In so doing, readers get a feel for Simms-Maddox’s writing style while becoming better acquainted with the fictional character Priscilla and the growing cast of characters, all of whom lend to the flow of the series.

Footnote: 1The second version, Special Envoy 1: Priscilla Journeys into Arab Islamic Territory, is available online at the usual book-purchasing sites. Published in 2020, it has an ISBN of 978-1-7322406-6-7 and retails for $34.99. It is the same story but casebound and begins differently. At least two more special envoy stories are forthcoming in the series.

Reviewed Jointly by Virginia Phiri and Elinettie K. Chabwera, Ph.D.

Reviewed jointly by Virginia Phiri, author and founding member of Zimbabwean Women Writers, and Elinettie K. Chabwera, Ph.D., author and former English professor at the University of Malawi and the Leeds University Center for African Studies in the UK.