Lincoln Child

Terminal Freeze, Lincoln Child

Terminal Freeze, Lincoln Child

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.

Gideon’s Sword, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

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.

Fever Dream, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Fever Dream, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2010, 405 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-55496-1

The very last page of Fever Dream’s hardcover edition is an important announcement from the authors (now listed without first names on the cover) telling us that they are about to launch a new series of thrillers.  That announcement couldn’t have come at a better time, since anyone who makes it to the end of their latest novel will understand the creative fatigue plaguing the Agent Pendergast series.

Fever Dream isn’t a bad piece of work as far as summer thrillers go… but it’s certainly generic enough to make anyone wonder what happened to the creative team that hopped so brilliantly from one set of character to another in their first few novels.  Now that they have spent seven successive novels writing about Pendergast, everything is starting to feel like routine.

Granted, Fever Dream is a bit better than their previous Cemetary Dance: They don’t kill off a major character, they avoid much of the pseudo-supernatural hocus-pocus of their last few books and even advance one or two overarching subplots along the way.  By digging into Pendergast’s history, and in particular the events surrounding his wife’s death twelve years earlier, we also get a chance to understand what makes his character tic while he stomps around his regular haunts.  Leaving behind New York for the bayou, the normally-cool agent is also quite a bit more emotional this time around… in his own fashion: the point is not just to find who killed his wife, but to avenge her as well.

Much of the plot, unsurprisingly enough for a Preston/Child thriller, is an investigation trying to piece together a decade-old mystery.  From smoking guns to hidden art caches, redneck confrontations and southern mansions contaminated by madness, Fever Dream even manages a few thrills along the way.  An unexpected plot development midway through the book even forces NYPD agent Laura Hayward to team up with Pendergast despite having little personal liking for the man.  There’s a touch of The Cabinet of Curiosity’s urban archaeology in seeing Pendergast deduce the existence of a hidden crypt under a Louisiana doughnut shop, while an ugly scene between Hayward and rednecks late in the book leads to a supremely satisfying revenge by the normally-imperturbable Pendergast.  While his long-dead wife was scarcely even mentioned in the previous novels in the series, she here has a faint presence that does nothing more than reinforce Pendergast’s mystique.  Elsewhere in that fictional universe, Constance Greene also gets a small part in one of the book’s subplots: Depending on its follow-up, it’s either a disappointing resolution to a promising story thread or a set-up for something even more intriguing.

Combine those particular traits with Preston/Child’s usual clean prose, high-tech/historical plot drivers, limpid scene construction and ongoing plot threads and you have the makings of a capable thriller, if not much more: Despite improving on the previous two novels, Fever Dream is still just another minor entry in the Pendergast series, and one that can’t even be bothered to wrap up its plot threads: while the story reaches a natural stopping point, there are at least two unanswered questions leading into the next book of the series…  almost as if readers couldn’t be trusted to come back to Pendergast once Preston/Child’s new “Gideon Crew” series is launched.  Fortunately, reading the industry trades tells us that the February 2011 publication of the first Gideon Crew novel will be followed in the spring/summer by another Pendergast novel.  As a signal that the Pendergast novels aren’t anything special any more, this one is hard to miss.  Hopefully, the break will help the two authors find another creative outlet and keep Pendergast employed doing what he does best.  If that means he can take an extended break while Preston/Child go about working on other projects, then that may be for the best.

Cemetary Dance, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Cemetary Dance, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2009, 435 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-58029-8

It’s books like this one that make me fear that one day, “they” will take away my critical license and forbid me from ever posting reviews on the web again.  When I will ask why, they will point to this review and stay silent, because it will stand on its own as the ravings of a terminally jaded reviewer.

So here it is: Cemetary Dance is a dull disappointment that is barely worth the Preston/Child name.  It’s not particularly distinctive, recycles some of Preston/Child’s worst narrative tics and squanders one of its series’ recurring characters.  Once the last page is turned, we’re left without lasting memories, except for the impression of having wasted our time.

It begins, like so many of Preston/Child’s previous collaborations do, with a gruesome murder.  This time, though, the victim is someone near and dear to readers of the series: Journalist Bill Smithback, who has been part of the Preston/Child universe since The Relic, is killed in his own apartment.  (This isn’t a spoiler, as it happens in chapter two and is an integral part of the cover blurb.)  Investigating the case, NYPD detective Vincent D’Agosta and FBI super-agent Aloysius Pendergast are troubled to find out that the murderer was conclusively identified as dead two weeks before.  Their investigation soon reveals mysterious connections with a cult hidden in an estate north of Manhattan.  Zombiis are inevitably involved.

You would think that sacrificing a sympathetic recurring character would serve a greater purpose, but Smithback’s death has narrative meaning only in that the novel raises the possibility of reanimated zombie killers.  In this context, propping up the corpse of a dear old character is more effective than in grabbing a random stranger.  But in terms of narrative payoff, Smithback’s exit isn’t particularly worthwhile: the villains in this book aren’t noteworthy opponents, and when one thinks that Smithback made it through the Diogenes trilogy more or less intact, it seems like a waste of a good opportunity.  At the very least, Preston/Child are good enough to give us two dramatic farewell scenes from Smithback’s friends.

But enough about Smithback, especially when there are bigger issues with the novel.  The most obvious one is the constant suggestion of supernatural mysteries, something that has always been part of the fabric of the Preston/Child universe ever since The Relic, but seldom more so than in the post-Brimstone sequence.  Again, though, the supernatural is unmasked to reveal a particularly tortured set of thriller conventions: By now, we’re so used to that Scooby-doo tricks that it’s hard to be worked up about it: Readers making it through Cemetary Dance will be more exasperated than thrilled in waiting for the inevitable rational explanation.  Those are getting increasingly implausible as novels go by, risking suspension of disbelief at every turn.  There comes a point in convoluted thrillers where supernatural explanations are simpler and more believable than the ludicrous chain of events that Preston/Child now favour.

It also dovetails into a feeling that rather than trying to be original (say, by breaking out something as different as The Ice Limit), Preston/Child are seeking refuge in the familiar playground of New York settings and hackneyed thriller tricks.  By now, Pendergast and friends have been used in so many successive books and plunged in a succession of so many outlandish adventures that we know better than to take the adventures at their initial word: There is always another trick, another hidden Kevlar vest, purloined gun or fake death to rescue the characters.  (Well, except for Smithback who, until further notice, is stone-cold-dead.)  The titles of the latest Preston/Child novels have been largely interchangeable (something-death-something, from The Book of the Dead to The Wheel of Death to Dance of Death), but that only reflects something about their books

All of this to say that it may be time for Preston/Child to either leave Pendergast behind or come up with a major novel in the sequence.  Cemetary Dance is, except for one major death, a minor work in their bibliography, forgettable to an extent that even Constance Green (who ought to be a mom by this time in the sequence) isn’t even to be found in the novel.  It’s a waste of money in hardcover, and barely worth a beach read in paperback.  Preston/Child have and will do better… but just not this time.

Unless I’m so spectacularly jaded that I can’t even appreciate a run-of-the-mill thriller anymore.

The Wheel of Darkness, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Wheel of Darkness, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Vision, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 495 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-446-61868-7

Another day means another thrilling adventure for FBI special agent Aloysius Pendergast!  After the triple-punch of the Diogenes trilogy, both Pendergast and his protégée Constance Greene take a break of sorts in a lightweight seafaring adventure.  The result may be a minor Preston/Child novel, but it’s not without a few stronger moments, and it definitely won’t hurt the writing duo’s reputation.

A plot summary almost reads like a parody: “After the events of the previous books, Pendergast and Constance go for a cruise.”  Of course, you then have to add that they board an ocean liner on its maiden voyage so that they can catch a murderous thief that has stolen a dangerous artifact, but where’s the fun in that?  After a hundred pages, though, the cruise beings and Pendergast’s shipboard activities grows to include things like defeating blackjack cheaters in the ship’s casinos, tracking down a serial killer, helping the crew take down an insane mutineer and losing his mind so that he can enjoy some deep-seated misanthropy.

Wait, wait, what’s that about turning crazy?  I’m revealing one of the novel’s better moments here, but don’t worry: By this time in the Pendergast series, seeing him act out of character is a treat in itself.  Crazy Pendergast, affected by said dangerous artefact, rivals his brother for contempt of humanity, and that’s when Constance -who gets a fairly generous role throughout the novel- gets to play foil to the even-more outlandish Pendergast.  His state of mind is restored in a way that will strike some as profound and others as amusing, but definitely show how far Preston/Child are willing to go in hocus-pocus mysticism while still claiming to write realistic novels.  Still; one of the better reasons for reading The Wheel of Darkness is for the portrait of Pendergast turning insaaane.

That’s partly because the rest of the story is mundane stuff.  Sure, Pendergast gets to play James Bond in out-cheating a band of professional blackjack card-counters (their techniques are straight out of Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House).  Of course, we get a look at the way an ocean liner works when it has to cater to a few thousand passengers.  Fine, we have a crazed serial killer eviscerating victims.  But in the context of Preston/Child’s high-adrenaline series, it all becomes routine.

By the time we’re being told that this is the best, biggest, most massive ocean liner in the history of the world, that this is its maiden voyage, that the company will tolerate no delays and that, well, there’s a tiny storm along the way, readers may start laughing to themselves in anticipation.  There are, fortunately, no icebergs.  But everyone can still guess that this is one maiden cruise that will end badly for many passengers.

But that’s the way it goes, one supposes, for the type of formula thrillers that Preston/Child have been writing together for more than a decade.  As a conceit, the “ocean liner” one isn’t bad, and most readers are bound to like it.  It’s just that after the triple-punch of the Diogenes Trilogy, this one feels like a far more sedate novel, one that doesn’t change much in the course of the series.  Even Constance’s big final-chapter revelation just confirms the last line of the previous book (as if there was any doubt of where that was going); readers in a hurry are not going to miss much by skipping over this volume in the series.

But not every volume can be a game-changer, and so The Wheel of Darkness (what’s with Preston/Child’s generic titles, lately?) does manage to fulfill expectations for Preston/Child readers.  The writing is limpid, the three-ring circus of events is efficiently managed, the details of shipboard operations are absorbing and the resolution does take place during a big storm.  What else could we possibly want?  Until the next novel, this one will do.

The Book of the Dead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The Book of the Dead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Vision, 2007 mass-market reprint of 2006 original, 619 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-446-61850-2

After matching wits with his evil-mastermind brother in Brimstone and Dance of Death, Aloysius Pendergast once again has to rise to the occasion in The Book of the Dead, final tome in the so-called “Diogenes” trilogy.  Circumstances looks promisingly hopeless at the start of the book: Pendergast is locked up in a maximum-security prison for murders his brother has meticulously blamed on him, while Diogenes is running free, planning his next horrific crime, interfering with activities of a non-profit institution and seducing Pendergast’s ward.  (He’s probably drinking from the milk carton as well, but Preston & Child have bigger crimes to describe.)

Fans of Preston & Child’s work will be unsurprised and amused to find out that as The Book of the Dead begins, the much-abused New York Natural History Museum is once again trying to restore its tattered reputation by… staging the exhibition of a cursed Egyptian tomb deep in its basement.  That a mysterious benefactor seems eager to finance this exhibit and only this exhibit alone doesn’t seem to trouble them.  After all, it’s a foolproof plan: What has ever gone wrong with this museum’s special exhibits so far?

The stage being set for a massive bloodbath, Preston & Child now return to Pendergast and his friends as they try to conceive of a plan good enough to rescue the FBI agent out of a high-security prison, even despite the constant interference of another FBI agent with a huge grudge against the series’ protagonist.  Elli Gunn’s EES is involved, as is a temporarily-suspended Vincent D’Agosta.  The rest of the series’ extended cast of characters pretty much all make an appearance at one point or another, making this volume seems even more familiar.

And, like clockwork, the expected happens: Pendergast escapes, Diogenes’ plan is revealed, there’s big trouble at the Museum, and the Diogenes issue is settled.  Seen from a high altitude, The Book of the Dead is a bit dull and empty, especially compared to its immediate predecessor.  The museum-exposition crutch seems overly familiar, and the plot seems to unfold in a linear fashion.  It’s far too long at 619 pages: While the pleasure of reading the book remains constant, there are times where it doesn’t advance quickly enough, especially during the extended conclusion that drags out over 75 pages and at least one continent too far. (A change of scenery that seems increasingly forced given Preston & Child’s Italian obsession throughout the entire Diogenes trilogy.  Look, we know you vacation there often, okay?)

The Book of the Dead (as generic a title as Preston & Child’s last few novels) also fails to impress as the third volume of a trilogy.  While Brimstone promised an apocalyptic fate for New York (if not the whole world), this seems to have been forgotten along the way.  The three books all lead from one to the other, but they fail to cohere in a satisfying whole.  Diogenes may or may not be gone (despite evidence to the contrary, never say never until the corpse has been double-tapped, beheaded, vaporized and even then watch out for the ghost) and it’s about time for Pendergast to go against someone else, but this concluding volume of the trilogy has an air of underachievement about it.

But where Preston & Child continue to excel is in the construction of small thrilling sequences.  Even if The Book of the Dead is a lesser novel than Dance of Death, it’s got about as many good sequences and set-pieces: The revelation of what Diogenes did with the diamonds he stole in the previous book is inspired, as are the scenes following how Pendergast adapts to prison life.  The Book of the Dead, especially during its latter half, often indulges in pure melodramatic cheese when it goes deep into the Pendergast family secrets: The conclusion is partly driven by the old “scorned woman” plot device, and the final line goes back to over-the-top gothic twists.  Consider the next book nicely set up.

It goes without saying that The Book of the Dead isn’t particularly accessible to newcomers (too many recurring characters acting out too many ongoing plot threads) but won’t lose any existing Preston & Child fans on their way to the next book.  Despite a few problems stemming primarily from the expectations left by Dance of Death, it’s still an A-list contemporary thriller showing why Preston & Child are the acknowledged master of that market segment.  On to Wheel of Death!

Dance of Death, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Dance of Death, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner Books, 2005 (2006 mass-market reprint), 560 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61709-1

This one is for the fans.

Readers completely new to the Preston/Child novels should enjoy this latest magisterial demonstration of why they reign as the most popular team in contemporary thrillers, but it’s really the fans who have read all nine of their previous collaborations that will enjoy Dance of Death to its fullest extent.  It bring together elements of nearly everything in their shared bibliography, exploits existing relationships, puts recurring characters through tough situations, upsets a few familiar truths and delivers extra payoffs for readers with long memories.

It is, after all, the second volume in the “Diogenes Trilogy”.  But unlike its predecessor Brimstone, the duel between FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his brother Diogenes is not a subplot: it takes center-stage, and Diogenes is a featured character as plan for a “perfect crime” unfolds in and around New York.  Aloysius, predictably, has survived the sombre conclusion of Brimstone, but people around him may not fare as well as Dance of Death begins and a number of his acquaintances are killed.  Could Diogenes’ plan have as an ultimate victim his own brother?  How could it not?

Those acquaintances include practically everyone in the Preston/Child universe, and so Dance of Death feels like an extended reunion with walk-in roles for nearly everyone ever featured in their previous nine novels.  Some of those appearances aren’t much more than one-scene mentions; others have a far greater role to play in the story.  Fans of The Ice Limit, in particular, will get not only a cute meta-fictional wink (as characters see a copy of Ice Limit III: Return To Cape Horn), but a pair of spellbinding chapters in which thought-to-be-dead Eli Glinn goes head-to-head with agent Pendergast.  Readers will even decode a sequel of sorts to The Ice Limit from the various clues left in plain view by Preston/Child.

Other links cleverly exploit various characters’ particular talents and skills: NYPD Laura Hayward is a dogged investigator looking into Pendergast’s role in the murders, while her boyfriend Vincent D’Agosta makes a perfect brawny companion to the cerebral FBI agent.  Even elements of the plotting seem to echo previous Preston/Child collaborations, as yet another big exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History goes spectacularly awry; it goes without saying that both curators Nora Kelly and Margo Green are involved in some way –one of them more dramatically than the other.

In sheer thrills, it’s always amazing to see Preston/Child manage to re-use old classic elements and wrap them into something new.  Jaded thriller readers won’t help but smile at the accumulation of well-worn plot devices crammed in the novel: Sane people wrongfully committed; diamond thievery (twice!); characters framed for murder; love interest held hostage… there’s even a pair of thrilling car chases to keep things rolling along.

But the real thrill of Dance of Death is in seeing a duel of masterminds.  Agent Pendergast has always been a ridiculously overpowered protagonist, and novels such as Still Life with Crows only proved how tricky it was to match him with a challenging opponent.  Now it looks as if The Diogenes Trilogy is designed to provide a fair adversary for Pendergast.

The novel ends on a note that will send fans rushing to get the third volume: Dance of Death keeps going about thirty pages longer than it could, building up a sense of anticipation that another phase of the story is starting… and that it’s interrupting itself just when it’s getting good.

As usual, it’s this combination of familiar characters, solid thrills, catchy prose and overall forward rhythm that continues to mesmerize Preston/Child readers.  Dance of Death does not transcend the contemporary thriller genre, but it fully exploits that storytelling mode and provides the entertainment that genre fiction should reliably provide.  The Diogenes trilogy concludes in The Book of the Dead, and only the strongest-willed readers won’t drop everything in order to see what happens next.

Brimstone, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Brimstone, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2004 (2005 mass market reprint), 728 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61275-8

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are among the most reliable writers in the contemporary thriller genre, and they can be counted upon to deliver the thrills that today’s readers demand.  But even they can have their major books and minors ones.  If their previous effort, Still Life with Crows, was a perfunctory thriller in-between more ambitious instalments, its follow-up Brimstone has all the markings of a major new work.  Or, make that the beginning of a major new cycle.

For one thing, it goes back to the New York metropolitan area.  After the corn fields of the Midwest, FBI Agent Pendergast is called to investigate a mysterious death on a Long Island estate.  This time, a wealthy man has seemingly burnt to death from the inside, all signs pointing to nothing less than supernatural intervention.  This being a Preston/Child novel, we can guess that it isn’t so; in fact, the key to this mystery will be pretty obvious to a number of tech-savvy readers.  But the fun of those novels is in the ups and down of the investigation, as it keeps traveling to stranger and stranger places.  By the time Brimstone is over, it even indulges itself in very traditional thrills.

But the other big sign that this is a major Preston/Child novel is in the return of several characters from previous novels.  Here, we don’t just get a featured role for agent Vincent D’Agosta, but secondary roles for journalist Bill Smithback and NYPD Captain Laura Hayward.  It’s a lively cast, but there’s something else at play too: a subplot slowly develops regarding Pendergast’s brother, a criminal mastermind whose plans come to overshadow the investigation that launches the novel.  Sometimes billed as “The first book of the Diogenes Trilogy”, Brimstone launches a new arc in the Pendergast cycle… and we can only guess at the brother-against-brother confrontation that awaits in the next few books.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of material to enjoy.  The early investigation of the devilish-smelling murder lands them into New York high society, meeting other people who seem to have made deals with the devil earlier in their lives.  But murders are contagious in the Preston/Child universe, and so other victims quickly follow.  After seeing Pendergast work solo in the previous book, it’s good that D’Agosta is back to give him a foil: Preston/Child’s best-known protagonist is a joy to follow, but it often takes a more grounded presence to truly highlight how special he can be.  One of the book’s best moments comes when Pendergast takes on a rich and arrogant businessman on his own yacht: among other things, Brimstone shows how much it takes to really upset the normally-unflappable FBI agent.

The novel eventually makes its way to Italy, dodging ancient mythology, cutting-edge technology and recent history along the way.  One subplot further sets up the rest of the Diogenes trilogy by portending imminent doom for New York, even as the thrills rely less and less on high technology the longer our protagonists spend in Europe.  The mixture of contemporary suspense and arcane knowledge is a good chunk of what makes a Preston/Child novel truly distinctive, and it’s amazing to see how a lecture on the essence of a Stradivarius violin eventually makes its way back in the plot.  Preston/Child never miss an opportunity to goose up their plotting with whatever classic thriller elements they can stuff in their story, although they can get too ambitious at times: The way they manage to get rid of a world-class assassin smacks of contrivances, especially when they have to skip over elements of their characters’ chronology in order to fool the reader for a few more pages.  It also goes without saying that any thriller that reaches 700 pages can use some editing, but it’s to Preston/Child’s credit that they rarely overstay their welcome.

By this moment in their career, though, Preston/Child both know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  Brimstone may not be lean nor overly mean, but it is a well-oiled thrill machine with an abundance of chrome.  It probably works a bit better as an introductory volume to a trilogy than it does as a self-contained murder thriller, but it’s a reliable test of their skills that it does both in a relatively successful fashion. After all, there’s little doubt that most readers who pick up Brimstone will race over to the next volume.

Still Life With Crows, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Still Life With Crows, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2003 (2004 paperback reprint), 564 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61276-6

Whenever the prosecution will put together its case for my terminal jadedness in matters of reviewing, I expect that this review will be high on the list. Because here I am, praising a thriller for its setting and dismissing it for its thrills.

On the other hand, who can argue against the idea that there are only so many thriller plots to use? A serial killer with quasi-supernatural methods isn’t just a well-worn plot driver, it’s arguably the same formula that allowed Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child to hit it big with their debut novel The Relic: mysterious murders in an unusual location reveal a killer that’s half-man, half-creature.

While Still Life With Crows may abandon Preston/Child’s usual urban haunts for the American Midwest, it’s pretty much the same story: The book opens on the discovery of a body in a corn field. (A gruesome discovery, of course) The murder appears to have ritual overtones, which quickly attracts agent Pendergast, now more fully defined than ever after the events of The Cabinet of Curiosities gave him a starring role.

The first 150 pages of Still Life With Crows are certainly the book’s best, if only for seeing dapper Pendergast stuck in the strange new environment of a tiny American town. This is American Gothic in more ways than one as Pendergast’s ideas about gastronomy and correct police procedures often run at odds with the local way of doing things. No matter; Pendergast quickly befriends the local goth, gets emergency cooking supplies delivered to his temporary headquarters and makes progress when the police forces seem unable to go further.

It follows that the small town of Medicine Creek, Kansas is a hotbed of potential drama: Beyond the usual small-town rivalries, we understand that the existence of the community depends on a major poultry processing plant and the promise of a major corn research projects. Ancient Indian lore eventually make their way in the plot, along with a seemingly-useless visit to a cave system managed by Pendergast’s landlord. Some of those elements are nothing more than artful diversions; others end up being part of the solution.

But the answers, when they come, end up deflating the entire novel, leaving us with nothing more than an overcooking killer that wouldn’t exist anywhere but in a thriller novel. The clever sense-of-place carefully built in the first act of the novel ends up taking a back seat to the usual running-in-the-dark hijinks. At 564 pages, Still Life With Crows is far too long for its own good, and most of this lengths, absurdly enough, comes toward the end of the novel even as the pacing should accelerate.

This isn’t as much of a problem as you may suspect: For their meanderings and tendency to recycle plot premises, the Lincoln/Child duo hasn’t become the most popular team in the business by skimping on readable prose and interesting characters. Agent Pendergast remains one of the most compelling protagonists in modern thriller fiction, and there are enough small details here and there to keep our interest. (For instance, there’s a cute little wink at their previous The Ice Limit via a character reading a paperback thriller called Beyond the Ice Limit).

It’s still a shame, though, that the vast corn fields of Kansas so impressively portrayed in the first half of the book had to cede the spotlight to yet another confined space. The interest of Still Life With Crows lies chiefly in how it manages to wring thrills out of an environment that many would consider terminally dull. But there’s such a thing as overdoing it, and the last few chapters of the novel could have easily been swapped with the end of The Relic.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just terminally jaded. I’ll let the jury decide.

Death Match, Lincoln Child

Death Match, Lincoln Child

Anchor, 2004 (2006 reprint), 388 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-307-27556-6

Here’s a pop quiz to test your genre savvy: You’re locked in a room with a string of murder victims on the floor. Around you are a cowboy, a vampire, an Artificial Intelligence, a ninja, a pirate, the President of the United States and a butler. You find out you’re in a technothriller. Who killed the victims?

That’s right: The Artificial Intelligence. Well done.

It’s never Lupus, but it’s always the Artificial Intelligence in technothrillers. It’s an impulse as basic as the class anxieties that led to an improbable number of homicidal butlers in British cozy murder mysteries: Technothriller writers are in the business of chilling their readers, and they calculate that since we already loathe our laptops and smart phones, we should be terrified of even smarter machines. The point at which computers become smarter than ourselves may already be here: looking at how many iPhones are already more intelligent than their teenage owners, it’s hard not to believe in the upcoming Singularity —not through machine intelligence, but thanks to increasing human stupidity.

And it’s human stupidity that finally brings us to Lincoln Child’s Death Match, three paragraphs in our review. Like Child’s two other solo novels so far, it deals with high technology run amok. It also shares with Utopia and Deep Storm, a fantastic first half that ultimately gets ground to generic platitudes by the end of the novel. Taken together, they make a convincing argument that Lincoln Child is the logical heir to Michael Crichton. This, however, may not be compliment.

But before getting there, let’s lay down the basics of the story: Our protagonist is one Christopher Lash, a “forensic psychologist” whose career at the FBI was cut down by an initially unspecified trauma. Lash is called upon by Eden Inc, a secretive matchmaking service: Apparently, one of their happily married couples has committed double suicide, and they want to know why. Eden, mind you, isn’t your usual matchmaking service: it asks for $25,000 up-front, requires a full day of wide-spectrum psychological and medical testing, and is vastly more accurate than any other matchmaking services. Eden doesn’t take failure lightly, and the suicide of one of their most successful success stories is more than a professional offense: it may be a problem with their entire approach.

So Lash is called on the case, peeling back the layers of Eden’s operations in an attempt to understand what went wrong. His attempt to undergo the usual Eden candidate screening process goes wrong, but it’s not the only part of his life that is suddenly troublesome: All around him, annoyances and threats pile up, from suddenly-unpaid bills to mysterious calls to toll booth passes suddenly not working.

And for all of the novel’s faults, the first half works well. Faced with an intriguing mystery (a foolproof matchmaking process; a suicide between a seemingly perfect couple), readers are asked to follow along the mystery. Some of the best moments in Death Match are strictly procedural, as something is explained to us via the protagonist, and we get to look at a complicated process. Mystery and secrets can do much to lead a reader along, and I’ve got not problem with that part of the novel.

No, the troubles start when the AI is introduced. At that point (and maybe even before), experienced readers will look at the book’s remaining 200 pages and wonder how long Child is going to take to tell us that, as in all technothrillers, it’s the AI whodunit. The rest of the book is considerably less graceful than the first half, all the way down to the evil machines “spitting sparks and belching ever darker gouts of smoke” [P.367] Ah yes, sparks and smoke; sure signals of evil computer engineering mastery.

As for the rest, well, it’s pretty much routine for Child: clean prose, slightly tepid pacing when not uncovering secrets, conventional end. Tons of issues are left unexplored, but the mechanics of high-tech matchmaking are relatively interesting and that’s pretty much the only thing saving the book from complete formula-photocopying. It’ll do if you’re stuck on a beach, in a plane or on a bus. Beyond those desperate situations, though, there are better choices.

Deep Storm, Lincoln Child

Deep Storm, Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 2007, 370 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-51550-4

Long-suffering regular readers of these reviews are probably aware of my fascination for genre boundaries, and books that look as if they work according to a particular set of genre protocols but actually end up working from another set of rules. Sometimes it’s clever genre-bending, sometimes it’s sheer cluelessness for inexperienced authors. Sometimes, too, it’s simply hammering a cool but unusual story in a framework that faithful fans are ready to accept.

So it is that Lincoln Child’s Deep Storm, for the longest time, is a textbook example of a techno-thriller that eventually twists itself in a science-fiction loop before disappearing in a puff of mainstream cowardice. It’s half a superb book, and half a middling one.

Warning; a full discussion of the book requires spoilers. Readers sensitive to untimely revelations about the novel’s ultimate nature may want to skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review.

As a genre reader, I must admit that I am in awe of the book’s first section, which sets up a mystery, then brings a capable protagonist to a remote high-tech environment in order to gradually learn about that mystery. As a techno-thriller element, it’s a well-worn plot device: The hero flies into a new environment, gets a guided tour and gradually learns a few things that don’t make sense. As the story and the threat both develop, the mystery is revealed in time for everyone to run for their lives.

In Deep Storm‘s case, the prologue sets up a deep-sea drilling operation that produces unexpected results. Nearly two years later, medical specialist Peter Crane is flown on-board the deep-sea station, then taken down to the new underwater headquarters of a brand-new, ultra-high-tech research station. As you may expect, things aren’t going well: researchers are being driven crazy by some mysterious forces, and there are hints of traitors inside and outside the station.

This hero-visits-research-station plot sequence is deeply embedded in the DNA of the techno-thriller genre, but Child is a reliable professional, and the first hundred pages of Deep Storm have the reassuring hum of well-maintained machinery. It creates anticipation for what’s to come, and sets up (sometimes quite obviously) everything we need to learn in the adventures to come.

The mystery at the heart of Deep Storm (LAST WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS) is actually quite intriguing: There’s a cache of alien weapons hidden under the Earth’s crust, and plenty of ultra-high-tech warning devices buried on top of it. As a science-fictional idea, it sustains scrutiny for about the length of a short story before the holes becomes apparent (such as, well, why not hide weapons in a place that is far less volatile than a geologically active planet with a virulently aggressive biosphere?), but it’s still a neat SF surprise at the heart of what was marketed as a mainstream thriller.

But there’s no fooling experience genre readers: The main difference between techno-thrillers and science-fiction, as genre, is not one of setting but of attitude. If the threatening breakthrough is understood, domesticated and becomes part of the human experience, it’s SF. If it’s destroyed with a naive assurance that no one will put those equations and components together ever again, then it’s a techno-thriller. Deep Storm, nods in the direction of SF with an extra kick in its epilogue, but tips its hand to the mainstream Child fans by destroying the station and the access path to below. To quote a character, “It’s a tragedy, but it’s over now. There’s no need to worry about others accessing the site. No foreign government can approach the dig interface; it’s too heavily irradiated.” [P.368] So it goes.

Genre-definition neepery aside, Deep Storm proves that Child has the thriller-writing business down pat. This is a book that cries out for a movie, and it plays to genre expectations beautifully until it gets stuck with an idea too good for its own intended audience. It may not be entirely satisfying after a moment’s thought, but it’s thrilling beach reading from beginning to end.

Utopia, Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 2002, 385 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50668-6

It would be easy to make a wisecrack about how theme park are like catnip for techno-thriller authors, but that would be designating Michael Crichton as “all techno-thriller authors”. It’s not because the guy has made a career writing about theme parks, from WESTWORLD to Jurassic Park, that one has to tar an entire genre with the same brush.

Still, when Lincoln Child decided on a theme park as the setting of his first solo effort, he had to be aware that reviewers around the world would use Crichton’s oeuvre as a lead-in to their reviews. So there we are.

Chances are that you have already read something at least co-written by Child: Douglas Preston and him are, after all, responsible for some of the best-selling thrillers of the past decade, The Relic to The Cabinet of Curiosities. What was stopping them from branching off on their own? Why, nothing, and so Child had Utopia out on the shelves in late 2002. (With a very attractive cover illustration which, might I add, shares a non-coincidental look with Swarz and Watkins’s Power Failure. But that’s an observation best left to cover design geeks such as myself.)

As a thriller, it couldn’t dream of a better setting: Set deep in the Nevada desert within the imaginary theme park of Utopia, Utopia begins as robotic expert Andrew Warne is invited at the park to fix a few persistent problems with the robotic equipment. No, no, the novel has nothing to do with robots taking over the place: you can calm down. It’s merely an excuse to get Warne in place as terrorists make a well-coordinated assault on Utopia. The novel (save for the prologue and epilogue) takes place over a single day packed with thrill-rides, chases and explosions.

As a setting, Utopia is a whole lot of fun: Child takes an obvious delight in showing us how theme park operate, which is fortunate given how this kind of techno-fetishism detail is exactly what readers likely to pick up Utopia are looking for. Divided in four parts (Gaslight/Victorian, Camelot/Medieval, Callisto/Futuristic and Boardwalk/Beachfront, though most of the story takes place in the futuristic “Callisto” area), the park attracts thousands of visitors per day, depends on the latest technology, makes tons of money, employs thousands of people, bla-bla-blah… The behind-the-scenes details betray either extensive research or a convincing imagination, but there’s not much to complain about given how it’s the setup of the novel. It’s like slipping back in a comfortable story-telling mode. Crichton fans, to name an obvious market segment, are unlikely to be disappointed.

Things heat up a little bit more when Something Happens and the management of the park receive instructions from carefully-prepared terrorists. They want something, they’re ready to prove how evil they are, they’re obviously getting information from someone on the inside and so the games begin.

Alas, the novel is never quite as good as its setting suggests. The final goal of the villains seems laughably pedestrian, especially considering the amount of complicated preparations they undertake to achieve their goals when simpler ways to get to it existed. The identity of the traitor can safely be guessed from the very first scenes. The book’s killer-app technology, perfect holography, is used in exactly the same way it’s been used on countless cheap TV series with scarcely any technological believability. Even the pacing of the novel seems to stretch on forever by the end, even as it should go a little bit faster.

Don’t get the impression that any of this is a catastrophe: if nothing else, Utopia delivers the kind of summertime thriller-reading experience the name “Lincoln Child” has become (half) known for. But there’s something disappointing in putting down the novel and muttering something about how it could have been much better. Hardly essential but, hey, there’s always the next Preston&Child collaboration…

The Cabinet of Curiosities, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 2002, 466 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-53022-0

At first glance, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s The Cabinet of Curiosities seems to be breaking new ground for the authors: The dust jacket promises a mystery in which a contemporary serial killer uses the deadly signature of a long-dead historical murderer. But don’t be mislead; in most ways, this is yet another rather good Preston/Child thriller, with their typical flaws and strengths.

Even though there’s a great deal of emphasis on historical New York, this isn’t even remotely similar to Caleb Carr’s historical mysteries: For one thing, the action is set strictly in the present. For another, The Cabinet of Curiosity is a clear descendant of the authors’ previous thrillers. The protagonists are characters from previous novels: Archaeologist Nora Kelly and journalist Bill Smithback, fresh from Thunderhead and still dating after her move to New York. Then there’s Special Agent Pendergast, in a follow-up performance after Relic and Reliquary. And there is no doubt that The Cabinet of Curiosities is his novel: Even before the novel gets underway, Pendergast is introduced with an appropriate amount of panache: while the two other novels gave a hint of his personality, this is the first one to truly explore the dimensions of his character, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes with quasi-supernatural mental tricks up his sleeve and a fabulous lifestyle that, yes, is somewhat explained in the course of the novel. While Nora and Bill are not uninteresting (Smithback’s mistakes are constantly infuriating), they pale in comparison to Pendergast.

But this is a genre novel with the firm intention to thrill, and so it’s no surprise if Pendergast himself pales in comparison to the plot and atmosphere. Like with Relic and its sequel, the action initially revolves around the New York Museum of Natural History, a fantastic neo-gothic establishment dropped straight in the middle of New York City. Something evil still lurks within the labyrinth of the Museum, if not in New York City itself.

Almost all Preston-Child novels so far have included elements of archaeology, and this one is no exception. Like with Reliquary, New York City is revealed as a treasure-trove of secrets hidden under ordinary apartment, on dusty archive files or in abandoned mansions. The historical mystery aspect of The Cabinet of Curiosity is one of the book’s chief delights and an engine for some powerful scenes, including one in which a basement apartment in Chinatown ends up being an ideal starting point for an archaeological dig. Indeed, fans of edutainment will probably learn a lot about how those charming “cabinet of curiosities” of the nineteenth century eventually became the starting point for our modern museums.

Just be sure to set aside enough time to read this novel; like the author’s other works, but perhaps even more so than their previous books, The Cabinet of Curiosities is a ferociously slick page-turner. It’s hard to slow down, let alone stop reading. Characterization is part of the book’s appeal and so is the carnival of fascinating details, but the clarity of the prose itself is impeccable. Coupled with good pacing, it goes straight to the core of the story and doesn’t let go. Its unfortunate that the drawn-out climax leads to a conclusion that smack too much of deus ex machina, and that some early coincidences are never convincingly explained. Not that it’ll slow down anyone.

It’s become a staple of Preston-Child novels (in the tradition of most techno-thrillers) to punish any intellectual ambition and cork genies back into their bottles. So it’s no surprise to see the triumphant ending of The Cabinet of Curiosities sport some variant of the usual “there are things that humankind should know” crap. (Yes, a lot like Riptide and The Ice Limit; too much knowledge is seen as an evil thing) This, coupled with what seems to be a growing tendency to recycle their cast of characters, certainly makes me worry about their long-term plans. If they’re not willing to gamble their entire universe at the end of the novel, why care? Wouldn’t it be a lot more interesting for the genie to escape from the bottle? Oh well; I guess that’s why they invented real Science Fiction: To go where timid thriller writers fear to go…

But if Preston-Child’s next efforts are as interesting as The Cabinet of Curiosities, there isn’t much to worry about; their narrative abilities are getting better even as their prose is leaner and cleaner. Save from some late-book problems, there’s not a lot to dislike here: Perfect entertainment!

Riptide, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 1998, 465 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60717-7

Most Canadian schoolboys are familiar with the story of Oak Island, a small piece of land located in the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles away from Nova Scotia. It would be a completely unremarkable island if it wasn’t for one fabulous story; the rumor of a fantastically well-protected treasure hidden under the surface.

It began with the discovery of a tree with a rope-burnt stump by two boys. It continued with various digs, constantly frustrated by the influx of water rushing into the pit through, possibly, cleverly engineered flooding tunnels. The Money Pit has killed a dozen men so far, and bankrupted at least twice as many. Is there a treasure down there? D’Arcy O’Connor’s excellent non-fiction book The Big Dig seems to indicate so. But unless we develop engineering techniques considerably more advanced than those of today, we’ll probably never know.

So ends the “real” story of Oak Island, with all the wonderfully dramatic loose ends implied (I’ve left out rumors of gold bullion, mega-rich pirates, Bacon-being-Shakespeare and various hard evidence of something strange under the island). To get a reasonably satisfying story about Oak Island’s treasure, we must turn to fiction: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Riptide.

Given the well-known story of Oak Island and the author’s usually careful research, it’s somewhat frustrating to note that nowhere in Riptide is any acknowledgement of the source story. American chauvinism? Maybe.

In any case, the initial setup is identical: An island on the eastern seaboard, a fantastic treasure, deadly engineering. For added dramatic effect, Preston & Child move the island to Maine and adds a tortured character who’s already lost a brother to the island.

At the novel’s beginning, an all-out engineering effort is assembled to finally conquer the island and get the treasure out. This being a modern techno-thriller, however, you can be sure that they won’t. (The days of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, when protagonists could become millionaires on discovered treasures, are long past. The new techno-thrillers dictate that ambition and determination is to be squished flat for the sin of arrogance. They call that progress.) It becomes apparent as soon as a preacher warns everyone against the corruption of money that this won’t have a cheery ending. But don’t worry: Even though the treasure is indeed lost, there’s a pretty good reason for that. Chances are that readers, at least, won’t feel cheated at all.

And while Preston & Child’s novels have elevated the scientist-punishment ending to new levels of clichés, it’s indeed quite rare to feel cheated by their books. They know what they’re doing. The pacing is snappy, the details are fascinating and there’s always something interesting going on. Sure, their characters are only adequate and their hypocritical anti-science shtick is wearisome (like Crichton, they revel in the possibilities while decrying them.), but overall, it’s decent entertainment.

There are annoyances, for sure; Readers will guess part of the big secret well before the protagonist (who’s supposed to be a doctor but never makes the link between missing teeth, burns and failing immunological systems.) and guess another plot twist pages before the “team of experts” does (“What if there’s more than one flooding tunnel?”). The ending is overlong and needlessly drawn-out. The human villain is unnecessarily evil, illustrating once more the authors’ obsession with painting ambition as unmitigatingly bad.

But never mind. Riptide, with all its flaws, stands as the duo’s best novel yet, a blockbuster thriller with flaws but also a lot of fun. It’ll be a special treat for everyone who has ever heard about Oak Island and wondered what might lie down there. Preston and Child have done their homework and delivered an imaginative thriller with a lot of bang for the buck. Don’t miss it if you like the treasure-hunting genre.

The Ice Limit, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 2000, 449 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52587-1

This is a novel about a rock. Not just any ordinary rock, mind you: For one thing, this one weighs a few thousand tons. For another, it’s most probably not from around here, being exceptionally dense, of blood-red color and unbreakable by conventional means. It’s also located on Isla Desolacion, a forsaken island in Argentinean territory. For most of these reason, this is an exceptionally valuable rock, and our billionaire-protagonist wants it for his museum. One last detail: That rock has the unfortunate tendency to zap lighting bolts into people.

Even if you don’t really like Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s thrillers, you’ve got to hand it to them; they know how to come up with an irresistible premise. From the monster-loose-in-the-museum premise of The Relic to the monsters-loose-under-New-York story in Reliquary, they’ve upped the ante with each successive novel. If the expression “hack writers” didn’t have such unpleasant connotation, that’s what we could call them; they write to mass-market specifications, turning out perfectly competent thrillers with adequate characters, fluid writing, good technical details and a structure calculated to deliver steadily more shocking jolts. Hey, it’s a bestselling living.

As it is, the plot of The Ice Limit is immediately gripping. A meteorite-hunter is hired by a billionaire in order to head an expedition to bring back The Rock to the United States. Given the unusual nature of the object, the novel then introduces one very unusual team, a wonderfully reclusive engineering business (ESS) specialized in huge-scale projects, from volcano manipulation to the re-creation of JFK’s real death. ESS is The Ice Limit‘s real delight, such an intriguing creation that I could easily a series of stories built around that company. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for engineering fiction.

In any case, the plan to bring back The Rock quickly sets into motion. A boat is built, then heavily modified and disguised by ILM. a sexy female scientist is introduced. Argentinean officials have to be bribed, except one who vows a terrible revenge. The teams arrives at Isla Desolation.

More people die. Secrets are uncovered. More people die.

It’s been said before, but a fundamental difference between techno-thrillers and science-fiction is how the author reacts to change. Science-Fiction usually adopts the attitude that “the genie is out of the bottle” and that we’d better adapt to change because change isn’t going away. Techno-thrillers, on the other hand, often shoo away the upsetting change, burying, destroying, ignoring it in the hope that the day after, everything comes back to normal.

And, unfortunately, -without going in details-, that’s pretty much what happens in The Ice Limit, which nearly ends up being one of the most depressing thrillers I’ve read in a while. The massive body count and ultimate futility of the exercise brings to mind authors handshaking over an agreement that “some things are not meant to be known by humankind”—and that hardheaded engineers are doomed. This attitude is partially redeemed (saving the book from an awful ending) by a last-minute twist that will be familiar with the weirder speculations of British scientist Fred Hoyle. (How’s that for a literate spoiler? Don’t think too much about it.)

Fortunately, the rest of the book is pretty good, and compulsively readable. The characters do the job for which they were created, and The Rock ensures a massive presence over the whole story. The engineering firm, as mentioned previously, is a wonderful creation I’d like to see elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that the end sucks off a lot of the novel’s energy, but feel free to skip the last fifty pages and imagine a better ending for yourself. At least that’ll entertain you until Preston and Child deliver their next thriller.