Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thriller Marketing/Review/Comments: Review

I read Brad Thor's The First Commandment last week, a book I likely otherwise would not have read. By an author I likely otherwise would not have read. And this simply because I read of his choice to make free ARC's available to non-professional reviewers, bloggers like me, for the promise of a review. No guidelines or limitations were specified, hinted at or implied other than a request for no spoilers. Which is actually the hard part because there are two specific things in this book that first cripple and then collapse it for me. I'll have to see how well I can dance around this.

Without knowing anything about the book prior to picking it up, it is clear early on that it is part of a series, that many of the characters have past histories with each other, and that the hero has established himself as being good at what he does. And what he does is take out the bad guys with, as they say, extreme prejudice. He's been so successful at his job that he is on a first name basis with the President of the United States, and it seems that in previous books he may have actually saved his life.

This is useful back story because it add a lot of weight to circumstances later in the book where the President orders the hero stopped at all costs, even if it means killing him. So what can make the most powerful man in the country order up a potential death sentence for not only perhaps his best counter-terrorist operative but a man who has previously saved his life? Sadly, not a whole lot, as it turns out.

When the book opens a small group of terrorist detainees are being released from the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Shortly thereafter, someone begins gunning for the friends and family of the hero, Scot Harvath. When Harvath tries to retaliate, to not only stop these attacks but do the job he's trained to do, he is personally called in front of the President and told to stand down. Without explanation. Harvath doesn't understand, doesn't have faith that the government can stop whoever it is that's responsible, and inevitably decides that he can't stand by as his girlfriend, mother, and others who are close to him are horribly attacked.

The book is easy to read and when I say that, I don't mean it as a pejorative. The chapters are very short, a consistent three pages, and gradually serve to rapidly advance the story. I found the early part of the book a bit annoying that just as something happened, another chapter would be devoted to either back story or earlier series history. I had a sense of a two steps forward, one step backward kind of a rhythm rather than a varied but constantly advancing pace.

I found the settings, the technology, and the tradecraft all well portrayed and believable, with only a few exceptions. Unfortunately it is these exceptions that kill the book for me.

Despite the initial lurching pace, the book had me thinking of it much as I thought of Lee Child's first Jack Reacher novel: it wasn't selling me completely but there was enough there to get me to a second book (which, after four years, I still haven't gotten to). But then the first of three "book killers" took place. Harvath, with two no less high powered individuals then himself, capture and subdue one of the released detainees, convinced that he is the likely killer. Hands bound, repeatedly tasered, the man still manages to head butt Harvath and render him senseless. Somehow, the bound and abused man runs past the two armed super-agents and crashes through a window. Then he runs into the street where he apparently can't see the traffic and the traffic can't see him because he runs in front of a cab who, despite being in a residential area, hits him hard enough to kill him instantly.

Cliche much?

That was the first bad sign, but not potentially a killer. I've always thought that readers will give you one thing, one item of banality or coincidence, but after that the author better toe the line. And even so, this was stretching it thinly for me. As a plot point, they simply needed to liquidate the man and move on. He was a loose end that needed to be tied up or excised, no more, and it was disappointing that this deadly familiar and unbelievable TV movie device was what was used as a solution.

The second problem, the one that undermined the entire novel, was the guiding motivation of the President and his advisers. We don't negotiate with terrorists, they say. Um, except when they threaten children in their school buses, then we do. You don't have to kill anybody, you just have to stage a demonstration and then promise something worse. Based on that the U.S. government will release known killers of thousands and issue a shoot to kill against the hero, a man personally responsible for saving the President's life and perhaps the best hope to stop the person or persons who originally made the threat.

Yeeeaaaah, righhhhhhht. Not find those who made the threat, not find ways to protect the school buses, not do anything but knuckle under based on one incident and a single threat. And just like that, the book goes boom and has rendered itself meaningless to me.

Now don't get me wrong: The First Commandment is a good read, a fast moving, suspenseful story peopled with many of the kinds of people you hope are actually out there fighting the good fight on behalf of us all. It's just that I find the underlying concept unforgivably flawed and unbelievable. Maybe it's just that I want it be so, that I don't want to think that the government of my country can be so wrongheaded and full of poor judgment.

This not only sets my Hemingway B.S. detector ringing off the wall it blows up any chance I have of looking past it and immersing myself in the events of the rest of the book. Perhaps that is not true for everyone. I'm sure that there is probably a host of people who will read this and find it eminently believable. There are perhaps more who will read it and not care, the ludicrous proposition not even registering.

Does it matter? After all, the only thing that is important is that the reader is entertained, feels there time and trust were well spent, and, especially to the author, that they will buy his next book. That group is unlikely to include me, unfortunately.

Would I recommend The First Commandment to others? Certainly, but not to everyone and only with heavy qualification. Much of popular fiction requires a suspension of disbelief but this is more than buying into one man's ability to evade the concerted efforts of the U.S. government to capture him. To enjoy this book without reservation you'd have to look past an over-familiar situation or two, which can be difficult enough, but you'd have to be able to believe that the government would act in a horribly self-destructive way.

It was too big a pill for me to swallow mostly because it serves as the underlying enabler of much that happens in the book. In other words, it is merely a plot device, but a colossal one, and ultimately it renders the book as unbelievable as it is. Which is too bad; I had the feeling, like with Lee Child, that if the author cared to put more into it, the book would have been a hell of a lot better. And it would have gotten me to a second one.

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