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After a silence of a few years, amnesiac CIA agent Jason Bourne returns - this time with a new author. Series creator Robert Ludlum has handed over the reins to fellow thriller writer Eric Van Lustbader - himself no strange to the political thriller.
This change of author does not actually impact on the book as much as you might expect. Van Lustbader deliberately tries to ape the style of the earlier Bourne books, without following them too slavishly. This means that he is able to set up characters, situations and events which sit comfortably within Bourne's world, yet give the new boy the opportunity to take things in a new direction.
The plot sees Jason Bourne framed for the murder of two of his best friends and once again finds himself hunted by the US government, who believe he has gone rogue. Determined to find out the true culprits, Bourne unravel a plot to kill several world leaders at a terrorism summit.
In many ways, the plot is where the change in authorship is most noticeable. It is a lot less original and less complex than the plots of previous Bourne novels. It's also noticeable that parts of The Bourne Legacy are actually very similar to the first book. Sometimes this is deliberate - the author making deliberate parallels to prove the book's pedigree; at other times it looks like a slight lack of imagination.
The simpler plot is not necessarily a bad thing, though, as the earlier Bourne books could often be confusing, so labyrinthine was the plotting. At the same time, however, some of the richness is lost. Ludlum created a vivid, realistic and gritty portrayal of the murky world of black ops. Bourne could trust no-one, was frequently betrayed and found strong friendships in unexpected places. Here, that sense of danger is slightly lacking. For all the cliffhangers, you never really feel that Bourne is in real danger or likely to fail in his mission.
Some of the plot elements are much more obvious too. Ludlum was excellent at setting up situations and only resolving them right towards the end of the book. Often, the reader had no idea where these various plot strands were heading or how they linked up and it was always a pleasant experience when everything was finally resolved and you could appreciate how tightly and cleverly the plot had been woven. Lustbader's writing is much more predictable. There is one element, in particular, which Lustbader tries to hide until around the middle of the book; in fact it's painfully transparent where it is heading.
Still, let's not concentrate too much on the gloomy side of things. Ludlum did such a good job with the first three Bourne books that following in his footsteps was always going to be tough. Despite a few issues, Lustbader actually does a reasonable job. As a seasoned thriller writer, he is clearly at home in this shady world and re-creates it perfectly. His juxtaposition of the "normal" world with the world of espionage, contract killings and government cover-ups works very well. He creates a strong atmosphere of danger, where Bourne is constantly unsure who he can trust and where every decision leads to more danger.
Van Lustbader knows how to construct a good thriller. His plot is littered with exciting set-pieces, fist fights, car chases and narrow escapes - yet it never neglects other elements and Van Lustbader takes the time to develop characters and other situations, some of which are only tangentially connected to the main plot. For every sequence where fists are flying there are others which show how Bourne has to use his natural intelligence to get the information he needs. This all brings a sense of gritty realism to the book which makes for a compulsive read.
It's slightly disappointing that Lustbader chooses to more or less ignore the key characters we have come to know from the previous two books. Two are the murder victims Bourne is accused of killing and so are got out of the way permanently, whilst Bourne's wife Marie is squirreled away in a safe house at the first sign of danger and not mentioned again until the end of the book. This does rip some of the heart out of the book, as these are characters we have come to know and care for; they are amongst the few people Bourne can trust and they have all been a big part of his previous adventures. Sidelining them in this way leaves a big hole. It's almost as though the new author wants to start with a clean slate and bring his own people in, and in doing so sweeps away too many of the established characters. The new ones he brings in are never quite able to match up or to fill the void and they feel a little more like artificial constructs than the "real" people they are replacing.
Still, for all its weaknesses, The Bourne Legacy is an enjoyable and competent thriller. The stripped-down, simpler plot works in the book's favour as it becomes easier to read. With earlier Bourne books you really had to concentrate to try and keep all the characters and plot elements in the right order; with The Bourne Legacy, that's much easier to do.
Whenever someone takes over a franchise from an existing author, it is a situation fraught with danger. The handover of the Bourne books is not without its problems, but on the whole it works reasonably well. The Bourne Legacy might be less imaginative and slightly more generic than its predecessors, but it's still a good read and recommended for anyone who likes complex, but action-packed spy thrillers.
The Bourne Legacy
Eric Van Lustbader
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011