You can count on Ken Follett to keep you immersed in a story. With this book, he does not disappoint. Despite the improbable confluence of action, he always makes it feel authentic and adrenaline-inducing. And John Lee, who is in the top tier of readers, always hits the right tone.
The author uses luminous description and knowledge of ancient China to weave a rich, textured story with some supernatural twists. You feel like you have a small window focused on the scene at hand, say in a sedan chair, but widening out from that focal point is a world full of intertwining background activity. The characters are for the most part varied and interesting, in a few cases a little flat. The plot offers its share of surprises, yet I found myself a little annoyed at times by some improbable or awkward scenes. Still, this book merits 5 stars just for the poetic beauty of the writing.
This book is worse than a made-for-TV movie. It's like a low-grade Stephen King, but it's closer to the R.L. Stine teen thrillers. The author has mid-level descriptive powers; that is one plus. But the characters are stereotypes, each operating within the scope of one or two defining qualities. And even though it's a horror story, the action lacks any kind of authenticity, so one's willingness to suspend disbelief is constantly challenged. Improbable rescues occur predictably, like in a silent-picture melodrama. Only the quirky, evil, or peripheral characters die, except for one whose end comes with a suitcase nuke. That's a pretty big clue right there. But the worst part is the incredibly slow pacing of the story, making it boring on top of its other flaws. This includes at one point a dry recounting of those "taken up" -- dozens of names, maybe scores. Couldn't we have been spared this and so much more? It's sort of an interesting story concept although I Am Legend preceded it. I just wish the author who wrote World War Z had done the writing, or else Cormac McCarthy.
This novel makes a promising start, with two murders carried out by a computer "daemon." But it quickly and steeply descends into a comic book dystopia of computers run amuck.
Anyone who has been on the phone with an automated answering system knows how far away AI is from the Hal-like Daemon. (From topical references, the story appears to take place roughly in the present.) Murphy's law does not function in this dystopia, as nothing vital to the daemon every malfunctions. So prepare for Herculean efforts to suspend your disbelief as this autonomous computer program arranges physical events starting with a cable being wenched up out of a road at a precisely timed moment to murder someone. The plot progresses to futuristic weapons and scenarios analogous to flying cars.
Moreover, the novel is not saved by its flat characters and dialog. It would have made a better comic book, which is two-dimensional by design. And at least we'd have pictures to look at.
In too many places the author leaves us with "deleted" or "redacted." What's the point in this? Explain it or rewrite instead of telling half. A good story, spoiled. Also, the author rails against Clinton and praises Bush, who ultimately let bin Laden escape and allowed Afghanistan to rekindle into the hell it is now. And finally, do real heroes require so much self-congratulation? Why not let history do that?
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