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Whenever a popular series undergoes a change of author, it's always a cause for concern. Jason Bourne seemed to have survived this danger when Eric Van Lustbader took over the franchise from creator Robert Ludlum. The transition was made fairly smoothly, with Van Lustbader writing previous books is a fashion that was sympathetic to the original character, whilst imposing his own particular stamp on him.
Sadly, that early promise is somewhat halted by the 7th Bourne Book, The Bourne Deception. Once again, former special ops agent Jason Bourne is called back into action when he and his allies uncover a plot which could lead to World War III.
First off the good news: The Bourne Deception is a perfectly acceptable thriller. It runs along at a reasonable speed and has plenty of action. There are regular plot developments to keep you interested, lots of cliff-hangers and moments of danger; in other words, all the stuff you've come to expect from a Bourne novel.
For the most part, it is readable enough, one or two mis-steps aside. Van Lustbader generally has an appealing, easily digestible style. Whilst he provides quite a lot of information at times, the reader never feels bogged down in detail. He has a knack with writing action sequences, making them interesting and exciting, (always tricky in a non-visual medium) whilst an appropriate tone of fear and paranoia pervades the narrative. It's not all positive though: the attempt to develop the backstory of Bourne's nemesis Arkadin is actually not terribly interesting, slightly tangential to the main plot and slows the book down. It's also told using very clumsily introduced flashbacks. These are often done without warning so that it can take you a few sentences to realise that the action has switched to ten years previously.
This "hopping" is a bit of an issue throughout as the book leaps around from place to place, person to person and time period to time period with little notice. Complexity of plot has been a feature of previous Bourne books, but because the writing was so strong, the reader never felt lost. There were times in The Bourne Deception when I was only vaguely aware of what was happening and struggling to keep up with who everyone was and what they were up to.
With this in mind, you do need to have read earlier entries in the series - particularly the previous book, and preferably recently. The action in this one occurs almost immediately after the events of Bourne 6, and Van Lustbader simply assumes that his readers will remember those events and doesn't bother with a recap. This can lead to a disconnect where you spend the first couple of chapters trying to remember who on earth everyone is, why they are there and what they are doing. Not a promising start, then.
There's more bad news. Despite the title, The Bourne Deception rather suffers from a lack of Jason Bourne. It's his actions that have carried the franchise so far, so it's curious that Van Lustbader takes the decision to focus in on some of the support characters, only showcasing Bourne's talents occasionally.
Whilst this can be a useful way of developing new directions for a franchise, Van Lustbader overdoes it. He leaps around from character to character, sub-plot to sub-plot and uses some very tortuous and unlikely coincidences to eventually bring them where they need to be or to get them out of trouble. At first, you accept this, simply thinking that Bourne is so resourceful that he can always find a way out of a situation. However, as the book progresses, you start to think that his success in uncovering plots has more to do with luck than with his skills as an agent.
By removing Bourne from centre stage for large parts of the book, it suffers badly. It's not that the sub-plots aren't interesting, it's just they are not as interesting as Bourne. When reading them, you can't help your mind from wondering what Bourne is doing.
Sadly, even Bourne himself appears to be off-colour and when he does turn up, his escapades are not as exciting. This is not the Bourne we have come to know from previous novels: the Bourne who can be utterly focussed one moment, deeply uncertain the next. Indeed in this book, there are some aspects of Bourne's identity which appear completely laughable. The Bourne we have seen previously would do anything to survive, no matter how distasteful. Yet, in one episode, having been attacked by an enraged bull (don't ask!), he refuses to kill it, because (and this is a direct quote) "the bull had its own life to lead, just like he had".
On the evidence of The Bourne Deception, Robert Ludlum's influence on the series is sorely missed. Van Lustbader no longer seems to understand Jason Bourne and has simply turned him into a generic action hero. A labyrinthine plot, unlikely coincidences and too much focus on support characters leaves The Bourne Deception feeling rather flat.
The Bourne Deception
Eric Van Lustbader
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012