Berkley, 2001, 517 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18571-0
I find it very difficult to be overly critical of Clive Cussler’s novels. Despite flaws that would doom any other writer, Cussler is just as daring as his alter-ego Dirk Pitt [TM] when comes the time to deliver the goods. Repetitive plots? Impossible technology? Ridiculous villains? Cartoonish action? Cookie-cutter characterization? Unbelievable twists? Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting? It’s all pure Cussler routine, and after more than a dozen novels following the exact same template, it’s hard to be upset when the exact same features keep popping up from one book to another.
If you want a true look at Cussler’s ambitions, read his interview in the Dirk Pitt Revealed companion guide. Cussler, an old advertising veteran and businessman, knows exactly what he’s doing and has no shame in delivering what’s expected of him. He’s found both an audience and a niche: why should he even mess with the formula? His readership is, by now, so large that he can farm out the Dirk Pitt name to collaborators and still use his royalties to go on real-life treasure hunts. Bully to him: he’s living his life the way most people would like to… and what’s a small thing like literary quality to stand in his way?
Valhalla Rising is yet another thriller to come out of the vast Cussler Inc. Assembly line, and it begins exactly like the earlier ones: With a pair of historical prologues in which disaster strikes from a mysterious source. But before we can dwell too long on what this means for the rest of the novel, we’re off to the Pacific Ocean, where a dastardly plot ensures the sinking of a luxury liner. Is it the end for all passengers? Why, no, not when Dirk Pitt[TM] is around to perform a death-defying rescue. One thing leading to another, Pitt once again finds himself embroiled in a vast adventure that will lead him from the depths of the seas (twice) to a dogfight over Manhattan. Whew!
In doing so, Cussler also stretches the limits of permissible plotting. It’s not enough for him to give himself a cameo in his own work, he also has to act as a convenient deus ex machina to rescue his heroes from one impossible situation and lead them to the next plot coupon. (Mysteriously disappearing when it’s convenient to do so.) It’s not enough to give one big techno/historical reward to his characters: they get three or four of them at the same time, from evidence of American Viking settlements to the real-life Captain Nemo to quantum displacement technology that would revolutionize modern science if this was a novel that actually took science seriously. (No wonder that NUMA’s Turing-bashing AI barely raises any eyebrows when it’s featured as a supporting character.)
But all of the above pales in comparison to the end twist where, with less than ten pages left in the novel (SPOILERS!), a young man and his sister appear out of nowhere, lending a patina of of foreshadowing to Dirk Pitt’s[TM] book-long ruminations on age and his unsuccessful relationships. Yup, they’re his long-lost twin children, born of a mother everyone assumed dead. Cue a few hugs and the promise of a new generation of Pitt[TM] adventures. This is the type of thing that can destroy other writers’ books. With Cussler, it’s just another day on the job. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Chutzpah! is the guy’s middle name.
It’s not all good, of course: Even allowing for Cussler’s customary craziness, Valhalla Rising feels a lot like Cussler’s last half-dozen novels in terms of writing: As Dirk Pitt’s adventures have gotten longer, the prose seems slower and the action scenes seem to balloon out of proportion: It’s now bad enough that you can just skim along the first lines of each paragraph and not miss anything important. Cussler could do forestry a favour and trim his novels by half just by tightening up his writing while leaving the plot alone. Heck, he may even discover that this makes up for faster-paced novels. In the meantime, it’s all to easy to gloss over the action scenes, picking up careful reading only when Pitt lets loose with one of his typical quips. Either Cussler’s writing keeps getting worse, or my patience is wearing thin.
Otherwise, well, it’s the same-old, same-old Cussler. There are nice passages (I particularly liked the Manhattan dogfight and the trip to the Jules Verne archives) and good lines of dialogue in this overwritten mess, but in most other aspects it’s a Cussler that’s equal to all others. Some will see this as a boon, others as a problem, but no one will be disappointed or surprised by what they’re getting. Cussler has made himself immune to parody by delivering it himself. And that’s why, in all the ways that count, it’s hard to be overly critical of any book sporting Dirk Pitt’s TM.