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Ignorance can sometimes be a good thing. Unlike the previous reviewer on this site, I came to this book having not read any of the previous ones. Indeed, until I read the author's note at the back, I didn't even realise it WAS part of a series. Whilst this meant I might be ignorant about the character's previous adventure, it also meant I was unburdened by expectations. As a result, I rather enjoyed it.
At first I didn't think that this would be the case. The initial plot seemed hackneyed (yet another hunt for a stolen valuable/powerful artefact), the characters utterly unbelievable (an FBI Agent fully trained in Buddhist meditation methods by mysterious monks, and who is supremely good at... well, everything) and the whole thing just a little bit silly.
Having read the first thirty pages or so those were my initial impressions and I did briefly consider returning the book to the bookshelf. Being a stubborn little monkey though, I ploughed on, and it's at this point that I had my "Road to Damascus" moment. I suddenly realised that the whole thing is MEANT to be totally over the top, unrealistic and silly. It's an affectionate, slightly tongue in cheek version of Dan Brown-style adventures, in much the same way that that the Indiana Jones movies are a tribute to 1930s serials. Once I realised that, I adjusted by expectations and started to enjoy the book immensely, getting thoroughly caught up in its ludicrous situations, unlikely plot developments and totally unrealistic characters.
It's on this crucial point that opinions on the book will diverge. If you buy into its luxurious silliness, you'll find it a lot of fun. If you don't, you will probably hate it.
The plot really makes little sense; another reason why it's essential to accept it generally silly nature. Following a visit to a hidden Tibetan monastery, an FBI agent (the absurdly named Aloysius Pendergast) discovers a mysterious object has been stolen. Agreeing to track down the object takes him onto a ship bound for New York on its maiden voyage. As if Pendergast's task wasn't already tricky enough murder, mutiny and mayhem break out on board, further hindering his quest.
If this plot summary makes you despair for the world of the popular novel, then give Wheel of Darkness a wide berth. If it has piqued your curiosity you might rather enjoy it. To some extent it's a book that works because it starts totally over-the-top and never really lets up. True, the relentless plotting starts to wear a little thin eventually and, as unlikely event was piled on top of unlikely event, I found myself looking forward to the end; but for the most part, it kept me wonderfully entertained.
This is helped by the excellent writing from authors Preston and Child. Recognising how silly their creation is, they don't pretend to write great literature and simply bang the words down on the page in a way perfectly suited to the frantic pace of the plot. Chapters are short, new developments frequent and too much detail is not allowed to get in the way of the story. This is exactly what the book needs and whilst there may be a few stylistic annoyances (the phrase "It was the work of less than five minutes..." puts in a few too many appearances) the writing style keeps the pace fast and the reader gripped.
Another reason for the high enjoyment level comes from the book comes from the utterly preposterous central character, Aloysius Pendergast. Smooth talking, intelligent, daring, brave, and cunning; he makes James Bond look like an amateur detective. Pendergast's character is so stupid it should make the whole book implode under the weight of its own improbability. Yet somehow, it works. Pendergast is a disturbingly likeable character, if only because we really, really wish we could be like him. Like the plot, his absurd ability to be so damn good at everything and have the exact combination of skills required to get out of every conceivable situation is a joy to read about. Indeed, it is very noticeable that there is a dip towards the end of the book when Pendergast temporarily takes a bit of a back seat.
Less successful (in this book at least) is Pendergast's niece, Constance Green who is not given a great deal to do and permanently operates in Pendergast's shadow. I can't comment on her character in the other books, since I've not read them, but she doesn't work too well here and smacks a little too much of the typical "female sidekick" role.
Apparently, this is actually about the sixth or seventh adventure starring Pendergast and Green. You wouldn't necessarily know this however since the book is so well-written, that it can easily be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel (as, indeed, I did). There are a few references to earlier adventures, but they are not essential to the plot, so you won't miss anything important if you haven't read them.
Sometimes what you want from a book is some preposterous, over-the-top nonsense and this is exactly what Wheel of Darkness delivers. All I can say is that if this is one of the weaker Pendergast books, I'm really looking forward to getting hold of some of the better ones!
Wheel of Darkness
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
© Copyright SWSt 2011
I can see what Lincoln & Preston were trying to do with this novel. As far as I can see they had 2 main criteria.
A high majority of the previous Lincoln Preston novels had setting within New York and in particular the New York History Museum. Regarding the latter, I have loved this formidable backdrop; the endless corridors, sub structure and potential for the unknown have always held intrigue and an eerie sense of adventure. The last 3 novels however; the 'Pendergast Trilogy' (Brimstone, Dance of Death, Book of the Dead) all featured heavily in New York City and the museum. It needed something fresh. So their first goal had to be to to break from this arena; like they did with A Still Life With Crows. Secondly, they needed to progress Constance Greene, a character that has had 5 novels of varying degrees of development. Whilst at the same time hanging on to their finest creation of Pendergast.
Those, as I see it were their key objectives. But I have to say for the majority, they failed on both accounts.
There are 2 main locations in this book (I exclude Croydon (!) and the other travel stop offs en route from one to the other). Location A: An ancient Tibetan monastery. For me this just reeked of cliché. Maybe cliché is the wrong word, but this location has been portayed many times before, more often than not as a comedy backdrop. I mean, Batman Begins did it... even Ace Ventura 2 did it! Location B: A groundbreaking ocean liner on it's maiden voyage (parallel to the Titanic). Again this venue seemed to strike me as slightly wishy washy - evocative of a Ruth Rendl whodunit mystery, crossing off suspects from a list of passengers... And for a while the story played out that way aswell. Location B only managed to redeem itself towards the end of the novel when the focus switched to the operations of said liner.
Constance Greene frustrated me. She was the #2 character in the book - the other main character alongside Pendergast. But she continued to whither blandly in the background and did not fulfil this central role effectively. Maybe it is due to the eclipse effect from the main man, but thinking back to previous novels, other main characters pulled it off; D'Agosta managed to punch his weight, as did Nora Kelly, Margo Green etc (hold on... Margo Green... Constance Greene... is there a connection I've missed?)... Anyhow, Constance never really flourished in this book. Hopefully in future novels; as she potentially has the most interesting backstory
Pendergast has without a doubt developed as a character. I re-read my Lincoln Preston collection every couple of years, and am amazed at his progression from distant, mysterious main character role in Relic (remember; it was actually Margo & D'Agosta who really took central stage) to central character in subsequent novels. Where as character perfection was probably reached around Dance of Death or Book of the Dead, in this book he has gone beyond perfection to become almost godly in his talents / skills / ability, and where as previously it always slipped in an explanation as to how he managed certain marvels (ie a hidden lock pick, a crafty, negotiation with a next door prisonor etc), in Wheel of Darkness his feats largely went unexplained... I mean how did he manage to get the ocean liner to come back to shore after sailing? To whom and what was said in that phonecall? Annoying. Maybe being in the shipping industry, I am a geek; knowing what an ulmighty task that would be. Anyway the point I am trying to make is when characters become that perfect, they lose their credibility and believability.
And finally on to the story itself. Despite the above I was compelled to read on... and on... I can never fault Lincoln & Preston's descriptiveness, and their ability to keep the reader hooked. They do really manage to conjure up magnificent imagery. Some scenes I felt were stretched out too much; a certain conversation between Constance & Pendergast towards the end for example seems to span several chapters basically repeating the same content / argument and going nowhere.
The plot revolves around the supernatural. I find that where Lincoln & Preston have in the past excelled is backing up a story with scientific fact or at least scientific theory. This one however fell significantly short of this usual pattern, and only a page or so in the epilogue was dedicated to explaining the events through science, and they turned out to be very poor, unbelievable explanations for most of it.
For me this was defiantly their weakest novel to date (especially with Pendergast at the helm), but I will continue to bear with them. I hope this is a temporary blip for them. Nearly all of their work prior to this has been exquisite.
Note: Originally written for Amazon.co.uk by myself. Reworded & reworked for use here.