Gideon’s Sword, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2011, 342 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-56432-8

We all know that book reviewers are useless: nobody pays attention to them, they’re wasting their time writing for little artistic or commercial reward and they wouldn’t exist at all if books went away.  Still, it doesn’t mean that they’re always wrong.

When reviewers started muttering that the Preston/Child thrillers featuring Aloysius Pendergast had grown stale and repetitive, they were probably echoing something that Preston/Child themselves knew.  Thriller readers thrive on a moderate amount of novelty, and after ten novels featuring the character (eight of them published yearly between 2002 and 2010), a creatively refreshing break seemed in order.  As it happens, Preston/Child aren’t giving up on Pendergast (an eleventh novel is slated for later in 2011), but they are broadening their horizons a bit, not only through their individual novels, but also through a new series featuring brand-new character Gideon Crew.

Crew exists in the same universe as Pendergast (they’re linked by eccentric billionaire Eli Glinn), but he’s a substantially different protagonist.  Whereas Pendergast is the archetypical wizard, Crew is a trickster: He manipulates people like others hack computers.  Whereas Pendergast will gain entry to a building by showing his FBI pass, deducing something amazing and blustering through, Crew will dress up, impersonate someone else and sneak past security undetected.  There’s probably an interesting crossover event in the future for both characters, but for now Gideon’s Sword is a chance for Preston/Child to focus on a new protagonist.

As with many origin stories, it takes a while for the throat-scratching to end.  A lengthy prologue sets up Crew as a genius with a burning desire to avenge his betrayed father.  Once the vengeance is complete, however, he gets both an offer and a sentence: Eli Glinn has noticed the subtlety of Crew’s vengeance, and wants to hire him as a freelance operator on complex cases.  At the same time, Crew is told that he’s got an incurable medical condition.  One that will likely kill him within a few months… a few years at most.

But there’s little time for Gideon to reflect on his death sentence.  Before long he’s involved in a breathless race around New York City to find out what he can about a mysterious Chinese scientist and the string of numbers he whispered after a car crash.  Taking full advantage of their NYC playground, Preston/Child end up taking a closer look at a lesser-known feature of the city; Hart Island, where unidentified bodies and body parts from all of New York City are buried.  (For some extra adventure, go to the authors’ web site for an unauthorized tour of the area.)

The result is a novel that feels lighter and faster-paced than the last few Preston/Child’s Pendergast novels.  Crew, being younger and unencumbered by Pendergast’s upper-class upbringing, is more impulsive and fallible.  His methods are different, and by renewing their cast of character, the authors also clean up the atmosphere of their book.

It’s not a complete success, though: Gideon’s Sword is designed to be less weighty than the Pendergast novels, and it does feel less substantial.  While the streamlined plot moves faster and prevents Preston/Child from overusing some familiar plotting devices, it also makes Gideon’s Sword feel a bit lightweight compared to their other novels.  Story-wise, there’s a bit of unpleasantness when Crew gets someone else killed by his actions –since the series is to continue (Gideon’s Corpse is scheduled for January 2012), one would expect a bit of remorse to surface.  But when it comes to future installments, one has to wonder about Gideon’s built-in expiration date.  Either he’s slated to die, bringing an unsatisfying end to the series, or Preston/Child will find a rabbit in their bag of tricks to save Gideon from his timely end.  Let’s wait and see which way it will go.

In the meantime, despite a few odd criticisms, Gideon’s Sword does feel like a welcome break from the Pendergast routine.  It’s not entirely a triumph, but it’s not a failure either, and it does provide the kind of entertainment that thriller readers are expecting.  But really; seeing the Preston/Child name on the cover, you don’t need the dubious advice of a book reviewer to tell you so.

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