Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Cabinet of Curiosities, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: The Cabinet of Curiosities
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 629 pages
Genre: mystery-thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

The Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the more sophisticated and subtle of the Pendergast thrillers. Despite the sci-fi element being more genuinely plausibility-straining and utterly critical to the story, you don’t feel it for most of the book. The sci-fi twist isn’t the point, and it doesn’t set the mood. This feels more like an old-time Victorian mystery — not least because the book takes a couple of speculative dips back in time.

In The Cabinet of Curiosities, construction for a new building unearths a gruesome charnal house, over a hundred years old. The skeletons are testament to America’s most prolific serial killer — whose crimes had never before been revealed or even suspected. This alone would be a fairly compelling story, but what really gets the attention of our usual assembly of heroes is when “copycat” crimes start popping up in New York City — men and women attacked and brutalized, part of their spinal cord removed, while they’re still alive. Though the NYPD considers these copycats to be inspired by the news about the archaeological site (and blames reporter Bill Smithback for breaking the story), Pendergast insists that the connection is far more direct and important than that.

The female lead and primary research in this book is Nora Kelly, girlfriend of Bill Smithback. (They meet in a spinoff novel, Thunderhead, which I was going to read ahead of this book before I realised I don’t actually own it). She serves more or less the same function as Margo Green, but she’s a character with a bit more bite to her. She and Pendergast are thwarted consistently: by Nora’s boss at the Museum, who doesn’t want her involved, by Anthony Fairhaven, the developer who owns the land on which the 130-year-old bodies were found, and by the New York Mayor’s office, who don’t want them upsetting Fairhaven, a significant political contributor. Nonetheless, Pendergast enlists the aid and wins the loyalty of policeman Patrick Murphy O’Shaughnessy — originally assigned as a liaison to try and slow Pendergast down, but who quickly joins in the hunt, feeling reinvigorated in his career by the detective work. And of course, Bill’s running around, picking up pieces of information, helping Pendergast in unexpected ways, and generally pissing off every authority figure he encounters. (I have, if it hasn’t become apparent yet, quite a soft spot for Bill Smithback).

Though the whole series has been retroactively dubbed the Pendergast series, and though Pendergast certainly played a critical role in Relic and Reliquary, this is the first book where it really does become his series. Not that that means we suddenly know everything about him. Even when you’re in his head, seeing things from his perspective, even joining him on some of his decidedly unusual meditations, Pendergast remains a cypher in so many ways — which is, of course, so much of what makes him so utterly fascinating as a character. We do get more tantalizing hints here, about his past, about his family, with its streak of madness, and about his unique methods, blending Eastern mysticism with modern forensics.

This is also the first book of the series where P&C kill off a character you really care about. I remember being thoroughly shocked when it happened, and when it became apparent that, yes, they really had killed him, this was not a fake-out (because P&C are also masters of misdirection). They dig in the knife and twist. It’s a habit they keep up in further books. (Someday, someone should do a body count of all their books, with a separate list of near-death-experiences).

This is a great thriller, a really chilly one, which easily blends modern science with metaphysical speculation. The healthy dose of Victoriana adds a delightfully macabre frisson to the story, a thread of the detective stories of previous generations. And, as always, P&C are great with character — they can sketch someone out in vivid detail in just a few pages, but they can also craft characters who are so deep, so complex, who can seem so real or nigh-supernatural. For all of these reasons, The Cabinet of Curiosities is among my favorite P&C novels, and I recommend it to all lovers of the mystery-thriller genre.

Buy ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’ at amazon.com.

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The King’s Courtesan, by Judith James

Title: The King’s Courtesan
King's CourtesanAuthor: Judith James
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 384 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? brand-new
Rating: a little shy of 3 stars

I feel like I expected more from this book. I can’t tell you how excited I was at the idea of a non-virginal heroine — they’re tremendously rare in my experience of historical romances, and about half the time, if the girl isn’t a virgin at the opening of the book, it’s because of a previous tryst with the hero, not because of any other indiscretion. Even if that’s historically accurate when it comes to the upper classes of English society in certain historical periods… well, who cares? It’s not like romance authors adhere strictly to other historical details. It’s probably not as strictly accurate as we tend to think, for one thing, and there are ways around that, for another. I’d just love to read more historicals where the girl is either a known soiled dove or where she’s had an indiscretion that she keeps secret — but she still gets to find true love, anyway. There’s just an odd slut-shaming shadow to all of the “I’m so glad I’m the only man to ever have her” tropes, and it rubs me a bit the wrong way. Like Harold Hill, I smile and grin for the gal with a touch of sin. Whether she just honestly enjoys physical pleasure, knows it, and has sought it out illicitly, or whether she made a mistake she regrets, or even if she was ravished and has to deal with that — I find all of those more compelling than the unending parade of virgins awakening to their bodies. So when I found out that The King’s Courtesan would feature a heroine who not only isn’t a virgin, but who is an honest-to-devil whore, I was so pleased. At last! Something new! Something scandalous! Something taboo!

Trouble is, it’s undercut a bit. She might be a courtesan, but she’s only had three men (a fact which will later on be tremendously reassuring to the hero, and I find there to be all kinds of sexual judgments and virtuous hair-splitting logic wrapped up in this), and James only hints around the edges of the emotional and psychological implications of the situation. Hope spends a lot more time thinking about how she wants to garden.

This book pairs up with James’s previous book, Libertine’s Kiss, which I enjoyed a lot more, not least because those characters seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot more. The King’s Courtesan is also set in Restoration England, its hero is a prior suitor of Elizabeth Walters from Libertine’s Kiss, and its heroine is a spinoff of the famous Restoration actress-turned-maitresse-en-titre Nell Gwyn. This ought to be a recipe for a romping good time. Instead, it falls pretty flat. King Charles, inexplicably deciding he can’t keep Hope Mathews around once his new Portuguese queen arrives (not something that ever seemed to bother the historical Charlie), marries her off to Captain Robert Nichols. The deal is that if Robert takes the girl, he gets to keep his family’s lands, which Charles was otherwise planning to hand over to another nobleman. (It turns out that this same nobleman is one of a group responsible for Robert’s sister’s death, which ought to be a much more interesting plot development than it was). Hope gets married entirely without her will or consent — in fact, she thinks it’s just part of a May Day celebration proclaiming them King and Queen of May. No one told her that the guy conducting the ceremonies was a real priest. This troubling bit of duplicity initially makes her furious at both Robert and Charles, but it never gets explored much beyond that, and once she realises Robert didn’t know she hadn’t been informed of the situation, she shrugs it off pretty easily.

I’m starting to notice a trend in James’s writing, which is that her characters, especially her heroes, are theoretically emotionally stunted and unable to deal with their problems… and then they spend a lot of time talking about those problems that they claim they can’t talk about. The men are all tragically wounded souls with grievous troubles, which they then spend pages and pages pouring out on the heroines. It’s starting to become tedious. I’d like to see her try a different formula.

All of that talking means there’s a decided lack of action in the book. It starts off well enough, but then Robert and Hope spend most of the book rusticating in the country. And they don’t do much while they’re there. From the description on the jacket, I was expecting a tumultuous domestic battle, each striving to dominate the other’s will before they came to terms… but instead, Robert and Hope discover pretty quickly that the King duped them both, agree to make the best of it, and settle down pretty quickly. When the plot finally gears back up towards the end, it feels artificial and unsatisfying. Robert doesn’t appear to have much of a character beyond his haunted past, and with Hope, James seems to be relying a little too heavily on the crutch of Nell Gwyn’s shadow. She lets the reference draw the character for her a little more than is effective.

Overall, I had really hoped for more from this book. All the ingredients for a really compelling read were there, they just entirely failed to come together in an engaging way. The sex scenes are pretty good — James does have a talent for describing passion, I’ll give her that much. The characters are weak, though, the plot lacks action, and the hero and heroine don’t have much of a spark apart from the sex scenes — which sort of makes those scenes just seem a bit odd and out of place. I think I’d have rather read a second book about William and Elizabeth from Libertine’s Kiss, honestly — their cameos in this book make it seem like they’re still having a smashing good time.

Also, Ms. James? If what you want to do is write historical fiction, to explore the psyches of real historical persons? Just do that. Really. I can tell that’s what you want to do — especially with King Charles. Just go for it.

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Reliquary, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Reliquary  (Pendergast #2)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 1997
Length: 480 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

This book is definitely a sequel. An entertaining and eminently readable sequel, but still, a sequel.

A couple of years after the horrific murders perpetrated by the ‘Museum Beast’, strange corpses start popping up across New York — corpses with their heads smashed in, cut off, or sliced open in some fashion, to get at precisely the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that Mbwun needed to eat in order to survive. The trouble is, this time it looks like there’s more than one monster. At first, no one pays much attention to it, because the first victims are drawn from New York’s massive homeless community. It’s only when a missing socialite turns up dead and headless in the Hudson that the story starts getting press — and that certain members of the NYPD, specifically Lieutenant D’Agosta, start putting the pieces together. Naturally, the re-emergence of this kind of serial killing brings Special Agent Pendergast back on the scene as well.

As the book progresses, we learn that Greg Kawakita, from Relic, discovered the secret of the Mbwun plant — that eating it could actually turn you into the monster creature, by means of a reovirus. He found out that the original explorer who found the Mbwun’s home territory and tribe must have been force-fed the plant and turned into the creature that terrorised the Museum years before. Kawakita then attempted to distill out the more physically horrifying genes, aiming to create a “purer” form of the reovirus, that would enhance the user’s sensory perception and intelligence without turning him into a reptilian-ape-creature-from-hell. Unfortunately, he started testing it before it was perfected, leading to a society of partially transformed mutants, mad with the need for their drug and turning increasingly murderous.

The most interesting aspect of Reliquary is, I think, the subterranean world of the homeless, too many to be counted, both victims and perpetrators of the ongoing crimes. The introduction of this hitherto hidden world is fascinating, from the paranoid intelligence of Mephisto to the survival tactics of the underground dwellers. This plot element also introduces us to Laura Hayward, a member of the NYPD specializing in rousting, who happens to be working on an advanced degree on the sociology of the homeless. I can’t remember if that particular focus comes back in later books, but whether her academic focus remains consistent or not, Hayward is a great character and an excellent addition to the series’s rotating cast.

This book introduces more of Pendergast’s unorthodox methods. He disguises himself as the head of a homeless community in order to meet with Mephisto, the king of the underground who gives Pendergast, reporter Bill Smithback, and D’Agosta information on what his people have seen of the mutant murderers. Later on, we see Pendergast operating as a one-man SWAT team, fully decked out in urban camo and carrying enough weaponry to invade a small nation. Really, if there’s anything Pendergast can’t do, we haven’t seen it yet.

Reliquary is readable but not critical to following the Pendergast series. It’s most notable for its addition of Laura Hayward, but other than that, you won’t miss much by skipping on to the far superior Cabinet of Curiosities. (I should mention that most of the novels function well enough as stand-alones, and do not need to be read in-sequence. I read them completely out of order on my first go – and I’m someone who that would usually drive crazy to do). There’s a lot that’s forgettable about this book, but benignly so.

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The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Fire Rose (Elemental Masters #1)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 433 pages
Genre: fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

Once you get past the absurd cover, this is actually a decent retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Within that framework, Lackey introduces the ideas of Elemental Magic that she continues to use throughout the ongoing series (though, as later books show, she does retcon a bit as she goes along — the rules of magic aren’t quite the same in The Fire Rose as they are in the later ones).

Jason, a Firemaster, has overstretched himself. An attempt to turn himself into a loup-garou, a werewolf variant which can change at will, not from a curse, goes terribly wrong, leaving him stuck halfway between wolf and man (the description of what he looks like is, incidentally, nothing like what appears on the cover). The changes impede his ability to research a cure, and so he needs help. He settles on Rosalind, a recently orphaned young woman who, thanks to her father’s debts, can no longer afford to stay on as one of the few female scholars at her university in Chicago. Jason offers her a job as a his research assistant. Initially she merely helps with reading medieval manuscripts, but eventually she discovers Jason’s magical secret. As it just so happens, Rose has magical potential within herself as well, so as she helps Jason, she also begins her own Apprenticeship in Air Magic. (I refuse, I just flat-out refuse to spell it with a “k” at the end as Lackey insists on doing here).

There is, of course, an adversary. Jason’s previous assistant is a moustache-twirling character, an Apprentice in Fire Magic who will never reach Mastery due to his total lack of discipline. He’s also a total sleaze and a lowlife, an embezzler and a cheat, best known in San Francisco as a “breaker” of women who’ve found themselves sold into whoredom. Lackey does everything she can to make him as repulsive as possible, to the point where it would strain credulity if you didn’t know there are, in fact, sickos like that out in the world. He’s definitely a darker character with more realistic seediness than you typically find in this sort of novel. Always looking for the shortcuts, Paul ends up taking up with Jason’s only rival Firemaster on the West Coast, a man who promises him a quicker route to greatness, liberally spiced with all manner of tawdry pleasures and sadistic delights.

The most compelling aspect of the story is, oddly enough, the setting. Lackey evokes 1906 San Francisco in extraordinarily vivid detail — both high and low society. She clearly did her research — the book is full of nuance, anecdotes, and tidbits, making it ultimately richer than a lot of vaguely-set fantasy historicals. Even though it isn’t an era I’ve spent a lot of time with, I’m too much of a history geek not to appreciate what Lackey does with it.

I find the book’s resolution, well, more than a little odd. The happy-ever-after is definitely a strange one, and implies a degree of isolation for the couple that doesn’t strike me as entirely healthy. It also doesn’t get tremendously well-explored, as is typical in Lackey books. As I’ve mentioned before, Lackey has a bad habit of cramming her climax into the last few pages of the book and then rushing through the denouement as quickly as she can. The Fire Rose is one of the more egregious examples of that fault.

Overall, this book is good but not great, and I appreciate it more for its introduction of Elemental Magic than as a stand-alone. There are definitely better books later on in the series.

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Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar

Title: Exit the Actress
Author: Priya Parmar
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 444 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars (largely for the strength of the source story, less so for what’s done with it)

Exit the Actress is cute and a bit quirky, but ultimately falls short of my hopes. The book tells the story of Eleanor Gwyn, called Ellen or Nell, who rises from selling oysters in the streets of London as a child, first to the ranks of the theatre, then to the royal court as a mistress to the famously libidinous King Charles II. Along the way, she gets entangled with the other famous names of the day — Thomas Killigrew (chief shareholder of the company), Edward Kyneston (of Stage Beauty fame), Charles Hart (the famous leading man of the period), Margaret Hughes (first known English actress), Aphra Behn (first professional female playwright), John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester (infamous libertine), and a host of other playwrights, poets, actors, actresses, and courtiers. The period of the Restoration is utterly fascinating for how riotous and contradictory it was, and Parmar does a satisfactory job of bringing that atmosphere across.

Parmar tells the story chiefly through Gwyn’s imagined diary, but also through playbills, gossip columns, letters between the king and his family, recipes, and other paper detritus — all of it fictional or fictionalized, which is a bit of a shame, because including some of the originals would have been fascinating. It’s clear that Parmar (a former dramaturg) is familiar with the sources, because plenty of juicy tidbits, anecdotes, and fun facts find their way into the novel, but they all feel somewhat watered-down. It’s definitely a creative way of telling the story, though, and it helps Parmar escape the trap too often presented by telling a story in the first person. The letters, particularly, let the reader see a world larger than Ellen’s, full of politics, war, and intrigues, and they expose a great deal more of the Stuart family dynamics

On the whole, it seems a rather sanitized version of Nell Gwyn’s story. The world certainly glitters — perhaps a bit too much. Parmar elevates Gwyn from guttersnipe origins to something rather more genteel — her mother is only an occasional bawd, her sister the better kind of prostitute. Ellen herself is not harassed or threatened — she merely encounters hints that maybe she ought to follow her sister into the morally questionable life. It’s not nearly so dark a vision as I’d more easily imagine for a penniless family ruled by a drunkard in the 1660s. The very harshest moment in the entire book is when Charles Hart calls her a whore — and even that dramatic moment pulls its punch a bit. Cleaning the story up robs it of a lot of potential. The familial stresses between Charles, Henrietta Maria, James, Jemmy, and the rest are mentioned but largely glossed over. Barbara Castlemaine, a fantastic harridan with the potential to be a hugely compelling character and worthy antagonist, remains almost entirely off-screen, as it were — referred to often but almost never seen in the moment. Nell’s rivalries with other actresses get dismissed as mere rumors, because sweet Ellen would never be so wicked. Even Johnny Rochester’s considerable troubles, violent nature, and vicious wit are somewhat fobbed off as lovable roguishness — they also almost all happen off-screen, again pulling the punch. I also have trouble believing that the backstage world of the Theatre Royal was quite so consistently chummy and supportive. There’s sporting rivalry with another company, but none of the cutthroat competition you’d expect. Additionally, for all the talk of Ellen the Actress, who gets her courage from the theatre and loves it so passionately, the discourse of the story spends precious little time actually involved with theatrical matters. I enjoyed a lot of the tidbits Parmar threw my way, particularly concerning obscure titles, but I wanted more of that and less of Ellen rusticating in the country.

We also see none of “pretty, witty Nell” — this is not the story of an impishly charming redhead whose quick wit, bold manner, and cheerful disposition win the hearts of London and King Charles II. Instead, this is the story of a tongue-tied, hesitant mouse, who has significant trouble asserting herself and who lands favours and attention based primarily off of the machinations of scheming courtiers and well-meaning friends alike. There’s no fire in this Ellen, no spark of mischief, no brilliance, and precious little passion. As a result, in the moments when she ought to be most scintillating, she comes off as rather dull or sappy. It feels a bit as though Parmar didn’t want her heroine to occasionally do nasty things, and so she hedges around them, excuses them, dismisses them as rumor, or leaves them out entirely. Her Ellen is just a little too impossibly perfect. Everyone loves her, but Parmar never offers compelling evidence as to why. She fails to bring across the irresistible charisma that the historical Nell Gwyn reportedly had.

Even more frustrating, Parmar leaves the story off with her ascension to maitresse en titre and mother to a king’s bastard — which seems an odd choice, considering that Ellen spends most of the book declaring that she wants to be something more than that. We never actually see her have to deal with the implications of her elevation. It also robs us of the opportunity to see her famous rivalry with Louise de Kérouaille — perhaps because Nell’s recorded behaviour towards the French mistress didn’t quite fit with Parmar’s vision of a gentler-spirited Ellen.

So, overall, readable, but not quite what I was hoping it would be. I’ve also got The Darling Strumpet waiting to be read, so we’ll see how that fares in comparison to this first read on the same subject.

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Fables #1: Legends in Exile

Title: Fables #1: Legends in Exile
Author: Bill Willingham
Artists: Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton, Mark Buckingham
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel – urban fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

In the center of New York City, a strange community lives in secrecy, hiding their true natures so that they can exist side-by-side with ordinary humans. These are the Fables, refugees from other realms — who happen to be the stuff of our world’s fairy tales and legends. They’ve been driven out of their homelands by someone known, at the moment, only as the Adversary; his troops, from what we see in flashbacks, consist of gruesome monsters, goblins, orcs, etc — the nastiest of the nasty, rapers and raiders, fixed on destruction. They took over territories one by one, and over a period of a couple of hundred years, the Fables fled, first finding their way into other realms, then finally into our world. Most of them live in an luxury apartment building, with their businesses on the surrounding street. Those who can’t pass for human (the Three Little Pigs, for instance) live upstate at the Farm. The nice and the naughty live side-by-side thanks to the Amnesty — an agreement that any Fable seeking asylum both forgive and be forgiven for any past crimes, on the condition that they go forth and sin no more, so that wicked stepmothers, vile sorcerers, and the like, now reformed, can live peaceably with their former victims.

The first installment focuses on Snow White and Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf given human form) as they investigate the apparent murder of Snow’s wild-child baby sister, Rose Red (this series merges the two Snow Whites, she of the seven dwarves and she of the bear). Along the way, they introduce us to some of Fabletown’s greatest heroes and villains: Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Beauty and the Beast (whose curse reverts when his wife gets mad at him), the Frog Prince, Pinocchio, the thrice-divorced Prince Charming (Snow was his first wife, followed by Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella), the formerly-murderous Bluebeard, Little Boy Blue. The interpretations of the characters, bringing them into our modern world, are all quite clever, and sometimes surprising. Prince Charming is pretty much a professional playboy, mooching off of the women he sweeps off their feet (we learn that he’s recently worn out his welcome in some of the royal courts in Europe). Snow is the Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, the brains and sweat keeping the whole organization running, while Mayor King Cole gladhands and takes care of the feel-good publicity. Beauty works in a bookshop. The Frog Prince is Fabletown’s janitor. Cinderella’s profession is as-yet unspecified, but we see her looking pretty badass, taking fencing lessons from Bluebeard.

Bigby reveals the details of Rose’s disappearance at the Remembrance Day ceremony, a Fabletown holiday on which they gather to honour those who fell defending the Homelands, to reminisce about their lost pasts, and to pledge themselves to, someday, reclaiming their former dominions. It’s a nostalgia-fest, and some members of Fabletown are more cynical than others, but it’s also the one time when pretty much all the Fables come together — making it the perfect opportunity for a tell-all. There’s some nice detective work going on, but that’s far from the focus or importance of the story — what’s far more crucial is what the chain of deceptions and revelations tells us about the characters involved and their relationships.

This is a great series, and the first installment does a good job of setting up the primary characters, as well as the world in which they operate. One of the loveliest moments is at the Remembrance Day ceremony. The official toast is the narration for a series of flashbacks — the first we see of the Adversary’s war and the Fables’ flight out of the Homelands. It shows the struggles to escape — in a somewhat different art style, with more saturated colors, higher contrast, more, well, epic tableaux than the usual style. For everything these first few issues reveal about the characters, they tantalizingly hint at a dozen more secrets and yet-unrevealed backstories. It invests the series with a narrative richness that I find utterly captivating — I love the complexity of it, the threads of story stretching backwards, forwards, and sideways. I love the spaces between, the stories left untold, the character nuances that hint at past tragedies, scarred-over but never-forgotten.

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Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Relic (Pendergast #1)
Authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 468 pages
Genre: sci-fi thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

The first book in the Pendergast series is just what it promises to be: a mystery-thriller with an intriguing sci-fi twist. Unusual, gruesome deaths are piling up at the New York Museum of Natural History, characterised by two disturbing traits: gaping chest wounds, like those inflicted by predatory animals, and missing brains — which appear to be eaten. Margo Green, a researcher at the Museum, finds herself at the center of the mystery, attempting to piece together scraps of information — hints from a disastrous mission to the Amazon, forensic clues, genetic oddities. At the museum, she works with her supervisor, Dr. Frock, and prodigy geneticist Greg Kawakita. On the law enforcement side of things, Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta is investigating the homicides, aided by the nigh-preternatural FBI Special Agent Pendergast. Pendergast, though his role is fairly small in this first book, is the focal point of this whole series of loosely-connected thrillers. Part James Bond, part Sherlock Holmes, wrapped up in the package of a Louisiana polymath. He’s a Gentleman and a Scholar who also knows several hundred ways to kill you. Margo’s also friends with Bill Smithback, a journalist who’s been hired by the Museum to write a book about the venerable institution — and who’s been chafing at the censorship imposed by the Museum’s head of public relations.

So. These are our protagonists. The first murders in the Museum seem a tragedy. But as the bodies start mounting, the situation becomes ever more dire –yet the Museum is determined to go forward with the opening night of a new exhibit, called Superstition. As it happens, one of the key pieces of this exhibit is a figurine of Mbwun, an Amazonian monstrosity who appears to have been worshiped (or at least venerated) by a remote tribe… and the figurine depicts a creature with traits that fit the profile of the murderer/murder weapons. And so rumours start to build of a Museum Beast, lurking in the bowels of the Museum… While D’Agosta and Pendergast are convinced by the scientists as to the increasing viability of this hypothesis, the Museum heads and the head of the New York FBI office aren’t buying it, and insist on going forward with the opening… setting the stage for a whole lot of trouble.

P&C have a talent for description, both atmospheric and characteristic. Though I have no doubt readers with a more intimate familiarity with the Museum of Natural History would get even greater enjoyment out of this book, they draw vivid enough pictures for those of us, like myself, who’ve only made brief passes through years earlier, or those who’ve never set foot in that museum at all. From the vast open hallways to the claustrophobic below-ground research labs, the sense of place is incredibly strong, as is the sense of mood — vitally important to a thriller. When the Beast pursues Margo, I could clearly visualise her dim, shadowy surroundings, I could feel Margo’s barely-controlled panic, I could hear the snuffling of the beast. P&C handle both stillness and chaos deftly.

The sense of character is also great. P&C have an ability which I often associate with Law and Order episodes — to evoke a very specific personality, with a distinct background, in a very short amount of time. Of course, by mid-book, you start strongly suspecting that anyone new introduced is probably going to be the next victim, but that’s not too much to overcome. The major characters all have complex backgrounds — which often aren’t even fully explored in this book (Pendergast’s less than anyone’s) — and while they certainly all have their flaws, it’s that psychological veracity that makes them so compelling. Many of these characters weave through P&C’s other novels, both within and outside of the Pendergast series, which makes returning to them, either in re-reads or when each new book comes out, rather like returning to old friends. These books often get compared to Michael Crichton’s work, and I think the strong characters are what actually make them better. They do the science, the thrills, and the mystery all very well, too, but the magnetic personalities are what bring me back to these books time and again.

Overall, this book is a fun, quick read and the start to a great series. It’s certainly not high literature — and it doesn’t need to be. But it is incredibly high-quality brain candy. I thoroughly recommend Relic, the rest of the Pendergast series, and all of P&C’s work, both as a pair and individually (and I’ll be reading and reviewing the rest over the coming months). Read them on the beach, on planes, at the park — read them when you’ve been working too hard and need to give your brain a treat. They’re a wonderful respite, and the most entertaining thrillers I’ve ever read.

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