A well paced, gripping page turner. The story line focuses on a mystery stemming from the work of a Jewish artist, who found himself on the wrong side of the head of the SS, Himmler. Fast forward to the present day, and a wartime painting by him seems to be the focus of a pro-SS group intent on taking ownership of the painting and using it to unlock the secrets of a treasure hunt.
Without giving the ending away, the treasure is not at first what it seems to be. This is where the main character, Tom, comes in. He too is after the painting and the answers to it secret riddles and what follows is a chase around Europe while his efforts to solve the mystery of the treasure are dogged by more than one shady group of people.
At first glance, the book could come across as the one the multitude of archeological thrillers that have flooded the shelves in the wake of the Da Vinci Code (DVC). This book should be judged in its own right, and certainly is good enough to stand alone from the DVC.
Well worth a read, and worth the five stars I have awarded it.
A while back I reviewed The Double Eagle, a competent, engaging thriller which whilst adding nothing new to an already over-crowded genre was still pretty readable and entertaining.
The Black Sun is the sequel and, if I'm perfectly honest, I could almost copy and paste my earlier review; most of the points would be equally applicable. The Black Sun is an inoffensive, enjoyable read. It sweeps you up in a sequence of daft events and entertains you sufficiently to keep you reading. It's not great literature, the characters are somewhat clichéd and it won't stick in the mind once you've turned the last page. What matters, though, is that whilst you are reading it, it's fun.
The Double Eagle was essentially just a treasure hunt for a rare coin featuring art thief Tom Kirk as the central character. All the staples of the genre were there: obscure clues spread across locations in a number of countries, pursuit by ruthless enemies, willing to kill for the coin and an unlikely rag-tag band of allies.
All The Black Sun does is replace the idea of a rare coin with something called The Amber Room (a hugely ostentatious Russian room stolen by the Nazis in World War II). Replace the first book's original bad guys with a group of Neo Nazis, leave everything else pretty much the same and bingo! You've got yourself a sequel.
The first impression of this is actually a slightly negative one. The "quest" is a little "So what?" Whilst everyone can appreciate the value of a rare coin, the idea of a room as a work of art is a little more abstract. For this reason, there isn't quite the same level of engagement or immediate interest in the sequel.
Happily, this is pretty much the only negative impact this change has. The action still proves pretty breathless as it moves from location to location and you slowly become engrossed in the journey and intrigued by the way the characters solving each clue. Although light and readable, Twining has certainly does his research. The Black Sun is packed with ideas, facts and real events which interlock nicely with the fictional story. Yet, Twining never forgets that his first mission is to entertain and the information he has discovered is used sparingly, only included when it has some relevance to the plot.
As with his first novel, if you do want to know more about the missing treasure and the central themes of the book, it's available on his website. This is an excellent way of balancing the need to entertain against the desire to know more and a path which perhaps more authors should explore.
Twining has a very readable style and this contributes greatly to the enjoyment levels. The plot is very fast paced and Twining reflects this with his style. Chapters are short - usually around 5 or 10 pages- and this tempts you into reading more and more of the book in a single sitting. It's not a challenging read and you are likely to devour this book in a very short space of time, thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.
Many of the characters from the first novel return, and this frees Twining up from the need to build their back-story. Don't worry though, if you haven't read the first book, as it's not critical to this one and can be read as a standalone tale. Where background information is required, Twining includes it for the benefit of the reader, without this slowing the book down unnecessarily.
As with the plot, the characters are all fairly bog standard for this genre and there's nothing to make them stand out particularly. Tom Kirk makes a companionable enough lead character and is fleshed out sufficiently to get the job done. Essentially, Kirk is a riff on Indiana Jones - an essentially good person who's not above breaking the law and whose roguish charm and good looks help him to get what he wants. It might not be new, but it works.
Twining also takes the decision to provide Tom with a sparring partner and for once, it's not a "feisty female" (although there is one of these too). Instead, Archie (Tom's former fence and now business partner) has an expanded role. There's some good interplay between the two, although it's perhaps a little po-faced. The Black Sun would occasionally benefit from a little bit more humour and Archie and Tom are the ideal candidates to provide it.
There is one area the book falls down: the ending. As events reach their climax it suffers from "James Bond syndrome", where the bad guy stands around and explains the significance of the plot and his eeeeevil plan to Tom (and thus to the reader). In The Double Eagle, this plot explanation was far more natural, as characters pieced together the various clues and reached their own conclusions, making the reader feel that they were part of the whole investigation. The Black Sun is a far more passive affair. Yes, the characters uncover clues which lead them to their goal, but until the bad guy explains everything you're never entirely sure why everyone is bothering to go to so much effort. The slightly uninspiring nature of the ultimate prize, coupled with the clunkier narrative technique makes The Black Sun just a little less satisfying.
Still, who am I to complain? I enjoyed The Black Sun immensely and once again felt that little twinge of regret when I finally reached the end and there was nothing more to read. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I moved onto the third (and, to date, final) book - The Gilded Seal. Expect a review soon!
The Black Sun
ISBN: 0-00-719017-4 (paperback)
© Copyright SWSt 2009
There is something about the Nazis that make good copy. Here is a bunch of folks that can be uncategorically called evil. What they did was unforgivable and so extreme that it is hard for the modern minded person to imagine it. Therefore; documentaries, films, books and games can use this sense of outrage as a way of selling a product. Why try and think of a motive behind an enemies attack when you can just use the Nazis? Channel 5 and the history channel are known for their Nazi output (as well as their shark output), but other people also drink from the same well. Personally, I find media that uses Nazis as go-to bad guys is usually generic and lacks imagination. Therefore, when I discovered that James Twining's new Tom Kirk story had the ex-con searching for a missing Nazi gold train I did not hold out for much. Luckily I was in for a fun romp that had plenty of Nazis and Neo Nazis (but unfortunately no sharks with lasers).
Tom Kirk has finally gone straight. After the events of 'The Double Eagle' he and his fence have decided to set up a legitimate business finding stolen goods. This allows them to still use their old resources, but stay away from the police. Unfortunately, the police do not want to stay away from them when they are asked by a covert British officer to look into a series of attacks on the works of a little known Jewish artist. Kirk soon finds himself involved in a mystery surrounding a missing Nazi train that was full of stolen treasures. With a 60 year old mystery to crack and a bunch of Neo Nazis on his trail all Kirk needs is the unwanted attention of a former friend turned enemy...
Twining proved with his debut novel 'The Double Eagle' that he is great at creating action books for men (who think they are still boys). The book is adorned with a positive quote by Jack Higgins and the fiction of both Higgins and Twining is similar. Kirk is an enjoyable, yet slightly lacklustre, character who thinks he lives in a complicated world, but we know it to be enjoyable simple. He may be a former spy and burglar, but we also know that he is a white knight. Therefore, when Twining introduces Neo Nazis as the main enemies in the books the reader is in for a simple good versus evil book. Every now and then this is enjoyable and 'The Black Sun' certainly was.
One area that Twining excels in is action set pieces. Seeing as the majority of the book is made up of action scenes strung together this is no bad thing. The fight scenes are over the top, but fun, as are the more stealthy sections. All the action is aided by a likable if slightly bland lead in Kirk. Twining tries to make Kirk interesting by giving him a mysterious and dangerous past, but you can not help feeling as a reader that he will do the right thing no matter what. The only really interesting side to Kirk is his relationship that he had with his father and how that paints his present. The moral ambiguity that the character needs to be to become a better anti-hero is only found in the conclusion of the book were his forgiveness is not a given.
With good action and likable enough characters 'The Black Sun' is also written well for what it is. The chapters are numerous and short, often ending in a cliff hanger. This is an extremely cheesy way of writing a book, but in this case it works. With its elements of a 60 year old mystery the book can be compared to 'The Da Vinci Code', but in my opinion it is actually slightly better as it forgoes the over analysis of history in favour of more action packed scenes.
'The Black Sun' is not going to win the Booker prize at any point, but if you go into this book thinking that it's of this high end quality you will be severely disappointed. What we have instead is a great action book that keeps things simple and gives a modern boy's own adventure style to the 'Da Vinci' genre. The characters are limited, the story absurd, but because Twining writes the book in a pacey style you can not help but be swept along and entertained. Although the use of Neo Nazis is not particularly original I do think that they worked to create a clear good versus evil storyline that made this better than Twining's 'The Double Eagle'. I am unsure how many times the author can get away with such generic writing, but at the moment I class this as a guilty pleasure ideal for a summer trip or airport read.
Author: James Twining
Price: amazon uk - £5.49
play.com - £5.49
A year after helping the FBI to solve the mystery and retrieve the Double Eagle coins, Tom Kirk has decided to get out of the art theft game. He has now set up a legitimate organisation with his partner in crime Archie to help people find lost works of art. So when he is called to Prague to follow up on a missing painting it seems like a straight forward case. When the painting turns up in his freezer with the arm of a murdered Auschwitz Survivor it seems things aren't as straightforward as they might at first appear. Now Tom has to solve the mystery behind these occurrences, whilst trying to stay one step ahead of an old advisory.
I'd been reasonably impressed with Twining's first novel, although it had seemed to contain too much build up. This time though he gives enough reminders and interest in Kirk's past for this book to stand alone from The Double Eagle. It seems that Twining has perhaps realised that he gave too much build up to the first novel and not enough plot. The difference makes The Black Sun a much easier and far more enjoyable read than the predecessor. It shows throughout this book that Twining has picked up and improved on criticism of his first novel and it seems to work better for him.
Likewise he seems to have picked up on the virtues of a flowing plot, rather than having Chapters all over the place that make absolutely no sense. The opening third of the book does still jump a little, with two or three sub plots but unlike The Double Eagle they all seem to blend together nicely and give the book a sort of structure and purpose. That makes for a much more interesting read and perhaps the reason why this one only took me a day, while his debut effort took in excess of three weeks to work my way through.
The plot is quite an evolved subject and he certainly seems to have put a lot of time into researching the background to his novel and making sure that the basis at least is cemented in real events. I think that also contributes to making the plot so enjoyable and perhaps the reason why the story became so addictive that I simply couldn't put it down. He uses a lot of descriptive paragraphs to describe new locations and that too helps to really give you a mental image of what he is trying to achieve and the sort of story he is trying to tell.
As this is the second of Twining's novels I've read I'm still not totally convinced with his characters, in particular his lead. I thought that Kirk displayed a number of characteristics of a few other characters from other books and films. Twining seems to be aiming for a cross between Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible's Ethan Hunt. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing I thought that Kirk could perhaps have been a more unique character in his own right. Like the previous novel there is a love interest in the form of a Russian gangster and from the moment she comes into the story you can see a relationship between her and Kirk developing.
Unlike his first novel there is a lot less characterisation that helps the flow of the story, it does perhaps limit the books ability to stand alone. I felt that perhaps a little more information on Kirk would enable people to pick this book up and start reading without the need to read The Double Eagle first. As I've mentioned there are a lot of reminders for anyone whose read the debut novel, but not really enough for a first time reader. That said though, unlike the predecessor I found that once I picked this one up I couldn't really put it down.
Overall this is quite an improvement on his debut novel. Twining seems to have picked up on the poorer aspects of the first novel and improved on them greatly in this one. Of course it could still be better and I felt there was still a little something missing from this books plot and perhaps it's enough detail to make this a stand alone that's actually missing. If you've got into Dan Brown's books then you'll probably quite like Twining's, although they certainly don't need anywhere near as much concentration as the likes of the Da Vinci Code did.
Amazon Marketplace: £1.00
A whole year has passed since art thief Tom Kirk made a resolution to abjure his criminal activities. But--it goes without saying--he finds himself unable to entirely leave his old life behind (after all, Twining would have no book in that the case). Three major art thefts occur, while in London a survivor of the death camps is killed in hospital. His murderers have removed a grisly relic from the crime scene: the dead man's left arm. Soon, Kirk finds himself drawn into a mystifying (and highly dangerous) situation, with yet another element complicating the already labyrinthine plot: a gang has broken into the NSA museum and made off with a decoding machine.