Doubleday, 2009, 320 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-51551-1
After years of joint bestselling success, it’s been interesting to see the Preston/Child writing duo strike out individually. This now gives the prolific duo an average of three books per year, and presumably the opportunity to try things on their own that they wouldn’t attempt in their collaborations given readers’ expectations for the team. They are, after all, seasoned writing professionals who fully understand the conventions of the thriller genre, and that usually works to their advantage.
Not always, though, and Lincoln Child’s Terminal Freeze is another example in his bibliography that shows how writers can combine original settings with familiar plot points and yet end up with disappointing novels.
To Child’s credit, it does take a long time for the disappointment to set in: As is often the case with high-concept thrillers, the first hundred pages are more interesting than the rest. We find ourselves deep in Alaska, at a research facility loosely guarded by the US Army. The first set of characters we meet are a group of scientists making the best out of global warming in studying the composition of retreating glaciers. But a sudden break in the ice reveals something far more interesting: a creature of some sort, encased in a gigantic ice cube. It doesn’t take much more to get a documentary film crew to land, taking over the camp in the name of TV entertainment. Meanwhile, vague mystical portent of doom from the local native population and a few shocking documents discovered in a long-classified official archive set the stage for the inevitable upcoming doom.
The setting and its atmosphere are a good chunk of Terminal Freeze’s early interest. The idea of a group of scientists working high above the Arctic Circle in one of the most isolated places in the world is good for a suspense story, and the sequence in which a character goes into a recently-declassified government archive to uncover an unexpected secret is the type of good foreboding sequence that any thriller ought to have. Even as the plot pieces slowly come together, the arrival of a documentary crew and the subsequent look behind the scenes of a supposedly “documentary” shoot are good to keep up our interest. (“You, scientist: look amazed! Everyone else, act as if you’re seeing the creature for the first time!”)
Then it gets really familiar really quickly. The large frozen cat that the scientists think they can glimpse in the ice proves to be something far more dangerous, and before long we get characters dying left and right, pursued in a military station by… a monster.
That’s the point where readers can be forgiven for thinking “Really? Another monster thriller?” and losing interest in the novel. Because, despite the interesting setting, Terminal Freeze soon succumbs to the theorem of converging premises and ends up feeling like countless monster movies of the past, with a small group of humans (scientists, soldiers, entertainers) doing their best to kill something that escapes the usual laws of nature. A too-quick look at ice-trucking (a topic which would probably sustain a novel of its own) isn’t enough to save the latter half of Terminal Freeze from terminal boredom. It’s trivially easy to guess who’s going to become monster-chow; it’s considerably harder to actually care about it. The epilogue contains a revelation that will only be interesting to readers who aren’t used to Science-Fiction –which, to be honest, is probably most of the book’s audience: Child keeps writing SF novels disguised as thrillers, but uses those elements so loosely that they become frustrating to genre fans. (It also helps if Child’s readership has a short memory, because Terminal Freeze ends on a note similar to the epilogue of his own previous Deep Storm.)
Terminal Freeze completes its dramatic arc by ploughing into the ground after a promising launch. After four solo Child novels, this isn’t much of a surprise. As a writer, his gift is for scene-setting… not plot development: Child follows genre conventions so faithfully that he doesn’t have room to breathe once he starts developing his stories. All of his previous novels, from Utopia to Death Match to Deep Storm are blessed with great premises, but they all falter into more conventional novels by the time the second act rolls around. The narrative momentum created in the first half of the book is usually enough to sustain readers through the less-interesting conclusions, but only just so. Maybe there’s something to be said for the combined strengths of collaborations.