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Whilst I enjoyed Raymond Khoury's The Last Templar and Sanctuary they were very similar in both style and theme. Indeed, in my review of Sanctuary I did warn that unless he started to diversify, he was in danger of coming across as a bit of a one-trick pony and that his books might become stale.
Unbelievably, it appears that Mr Khoury is not a fan of Dooyoo and didn't read my review; or at least if he did, he didn't heed my well-meant advice. His latest creation, The Sign, treads the same well-worn path as his previous two novels but (if you will permit me to stretch the metaphor even further) this time it is not quite as successful at avoiding the Cliffs of Doom waiting at the end of it.
All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that The Sign is not as good as his previous efforts.
Amongst the chief reasons for this is that the plot never quite seems to come together in a satisfying way. There are two parallel strands running throughout the book. The first sees TV reporter, Gracie Logan, witness an incredible sign whilst on a scientific ship in the Antarctic. The footage she captures prompts worldwide debate on whether this truly is a divine sign heralding the second coming, or simply a man-made hoax. The second theme, meanwhile, sees reformed car thief Matt Sherwood trying to track down those responsible for the death of his brother two years earlier.
Although inevitably, these plotlines are connected they never really feel that way. Of course, you know from the start that they will intersect at some point, but there's little genuine linkage between them. Too often it feels like these are two separate stories which are vaguely linked by the slighted of coincidences. When Khoury jumps from one plotline to the other (which he does fairly frequently), you're left with a feeling of mild annoyance, rather than the one of curiosity which he is hoping to foster.
It's not helped by the fact that the plot is far more predictable than even his other efforts (which, in themselves were predictable enough). From a pretty early stage, most readers will have a good idea where this is all heading. This is not necessarily a problem, until you realise that the plot is also rather dull. As conspiracy theories go, it's about as exciting as "who took the last chocolate biscuit."
It would be unfair to go as far as describing the book as "boring" it never grips the imagination in the same way that Khoury's previous efforts have done. Everything feels a little bit pedestrian and lethargic, particularly at the start. After the first 50 pages I was struggling to get into the book and it was only around page 100 that it started to even vaguely pique my curiosity. And whilst it got better, I can't honestly say it ever truly gripped me.
It's also not helped by the fact that the characters are hugely unrealistic. Again, this was a criticism levelled at his previous efforts, but since the plotting was so fast and furious, it didn't matter quite so much. With a weaker plot, the cracks start to show. In fairness, there's not too much wrong with Gracie. True, she is your standard feisty, driven female character, determined to follow up leads regardless of the dangers involved, but her character serves the plot and is (relatively) realistic.
The real problem lies with lead the character of Matt, who suddenly finds himself thrust in the middle of a battle with the (clichéd) bad guys. Matt is a relatively ordinary bloke, like you and I; he's not an ex-special forces agent or any of the other genre staples. What singles Matt out most is that he obviously lacks the skills needed to take on a highly organised gang of well-trained, well-funded bad guys. Yet suddenly, out of the blue, he's acting like some sort of highly trained SAS operative, infiltrating enemy bases, tracking people across the globe, being shot and wounded, but still managing to take out the bad guys with some pretty unorthodox, improvised methods It's this massively unrealistic characterisation that really proves the final nail in the coffin. Khoury's books have always skirted the edges of unrealistic action, but have always managed to just stay the right side of that line by giving a reason why the characters have the skills they do. The Sign dispenses with any sense of realism and relegates the book to the ranks of another dull, copycat thriller.
It's not all bad news, since Khoury's strong writing style has not deserted him, at least. His background in TV writing is obvious as there is a very episodic approach to the book. He effortlessly switches between characters, locations and situations, moving people around with ease and keeping the right balance between excitement and plot development. For all its shortcomings (and after that slow start) The Sign does at least make you want to keep reading.
There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for film and TV fans. Some of these are pretty obvious (references to Star Wars), whilst others are more subtle. Khoury is clearly a man who knows the world of entertainment well, and he cleverly weaves these cultural references into his dialogue and descriptions. These help improve that crushed sense of realism slightly, as the references to these "ordinary" things at least provide a backdrop with which we are comfortable and familiar.
I suppose The Sign is a perfectly serviceable "brain-out-of-gear" holiday book. But that's a heck of a crowded market to be in and if you're going after that market, these days, you need to distinguish yourself from the competition. After the thrills and spills of his previous two efforts, Khoury is starting to feel a bit like a pale imitation of himself; someone who is running out of ideas and so just keeps regurgitating the same ones over and over.
So, just in case Mr Khoury has joined Dooyoo recently, I'll repeat the advice I gave last time. Here is an author who has clearly shown he can write entertaining and engaging books. However, he does need to move away from the blueprint he has developed and do something a little different; otherwise he may find himself faced with hordes of disgruntled readers.
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