Mark Harril Saunders’s first novel, “Ministers of Fire,” is a brilliant, exciting and profound spy tale about, among other things, what it means to have faith. At the center are two men, Lucius Burling and John Lindstrom, with a long and tormented past between them. Back in 1979, they were together in Afghanistan, where CIA chief Burling ran a covert operation to buy arms for the mujaheddin from Chinese forces. But Burling fell in love with Lindstrom’s wife and took her along on a mission that resulted in her capture by Afghan forces.

Fast-forward 23 years: It’s 2002 and a different world, politically and personally. American alliances have switched post-Sept. 11, and China has doubled its security forces after the 1989 uprising at Tiananmen Square. Burling, whose marriage fell apart after the debacle in Afghanistan, is now the U.S. consul in Shanghai. A shadowy network has invited his old operative Lindstrom to help smuggle out a dissident named Yong Beihong. That puts the two in each other’s orbit again and nominally on the same side, working to save Yong from China’s security chief and his Mao-spouting flunkie, who want Yong dead.

But this is a classic CIA novel, thick with political and moral complications. Trust no one. To start with, Yong isn’t a model dissident; he’s a wild card, a physicist and radical Christian with nuclear secrets and troubling ideas. Lindstrom thinks Burling is using him to set up Yong, but Burling isn’t running this game. It’s being run from on high, between superpowers, using a swelling cast of characters — smugglers, black marketers, ex-moles, old soldiers, American do-gooders, Christian rebels — whose belief in their own free will might be an illusion.

The plot gets convoluted, with multiple characters, back stories, motivations, alliances and aliases. I read it twice but still can’t swear every piece fell into place. Nonetheless, it’s an incredibly rich reading experience. Saunders, who was raised in the Washington area and works for the University of Virginia Press, has a highly literate style and a deep understanding of politics and people. “Ministers of Fire” asks what it means to believe — in Mao, in Jesus Christ, in good intentions — as well as what it means to live in a fallen world. “In a way, you know, every Christian is a double agent,” Yong says. “He must serve God while living in the world as it is.” But what is God’s role in this world, and what does it take to make Him act? You don’t expect these questions or characters this vulnerable from a spy novel. If Saunders sometimes tries to do too much, he also stretches the genre in the process.

Welch frequently reviews books for the Free Times in Columbia, S.C.

"Ministers of Fire: A Novel" by Mr. Mark Harril Saunders (Swallow Press)

Ministers of Fire

By Mark Harril Saunders

Swallow. 352 pp. $26.95