John Gardner's Bond novels received pretty mixed reactions from Bond fans, and I can understand people's disappointment if they read his books expecting a big adventure like the Bond movies or the original Fleming novels. The majority of Gardner's novels don't follow the standard Bond formula. Rather than have Bond investigate some billionaire whose planning something evil, Gardner frequently has Bond embroiled in complex espionage plots and pitted against assorted communist agents and terrorists. And instead of describing food and locations in minute detail, Gardner gives details of real-life intelligence agencies, weapons, tradecraft, and the political climate of the time.
All of these elements are especially evident in The Man From Barbarossa. Bond is reluctantly assigned to an operation run by the KGB, along with Israeli and French agents. Posing as a camera crew set to film a mock war crimes trial, their mission is to infiltrate of the high echelons of the Scales of Justice, an underground group responsible for spreading a wave of terrorism across the crumbling Soviet Union. Of course, not is all as it seems, and Bond unravels a plot by a rogue Russian general to seize power in the Kremlin and supply Iraq with nuclear weapons on the eve of the First Persian Gulf War, as well as wipe out Washington, DC. Along the way, Bond confronts traitors on his team and a battalion of Russian spetsnaz.
There's very little action in this book, and it all comes at the end of the book. But Gardner still weaves a complex and intriguing plot that slowly unravels and reveals itself through the three hundred pages. While holding the reader's attention, you'll also never really be quite sure where the story is going next and will keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.
On the downside, the characters are not particularly well drawn out. The problem is that there are probably too many characters crammed into too small a book. Most characters simply aren't given enough time to develop or stand out. This is due mostly to the structure of the story. characters come in for a section of the book, then disappear for a large chunk of it, before being re-introduced.
Don't read this book if you're expecting an action-packed James Bond adventure. You will be disappointed. However, if you want a complex Cold War espionage/political thriller (which happens to have a character named James Bond) along the lines of Craig Thomas, then you can do a lot worse than The Man From Barbarossa. Icebreaker; No Deals, Mr Bond; Win, Loose, or Die; and Death is Forever, also by John Gardner, are also worth checking out if you like that type of thing. For more traditional Bond stories, stick to License Renewed and For Special Services.