Review by Seeley James
My wife loves Steve Berry and the historical tidbits that litter his thrillers. She asked me to review it. Normally I subscribe to the ‘if you can’t say anything nice…’ policy. I am and I am not a fan of Steve Berry. I like his stories, his settings, and many of his historical elements. I find his writing annoying. Really annoying. Maybe Ballantine is paying by the word, but in my estimation, Mr. Berry is in dire need of an editor.
More on that later. First, let me state the positives. There are many. This is a book with incredible depth on Judaism. He puts forth Jewish rites, history, and struggles with details lovingly and respectfully told without alienating non-religious or history-bereft readers. The book, like all his work, is rich with historical details. His background on Jamaica, Columbus, Spain, Austria, and the Middle East is comprehensive and trustworthy. We can read the story with faith in the author’s extensive research while intuitively knowing where he departs from historical fact to forge his own fiction. This book has another great benefit: It is devoid of Cotton Malone. I’m married to a lawyer, I know many lawyers, end up at lawyer conventions twice a year, and I could never see one of them doing the James Bond thing. Sorry, but I wouldn’t trust a lawyer with my son’s BB gun. (I have on occasion called lawyers at 3AM for a quick rescue at the local precinct; and have always said, ‘no one likes a lawyer until they need one’… but enough about me.) If you can put up with all Mr. Berry’s writing transgressions, you will love this book. Buried among the 140,000 unending words is a compelling and interesting story of about 70-80,000 words.
Writing transgressions? Annoying? What on earth do you mean?
In publishing today, there is a great debate between independent and traditional publishers. 20th Century publishers (aka Big 6, aka Traditional, aka Old Schoolers) make snide remarks about independent authors and their do-it-yourself e-books claiming their professional editors weed out bad writing and provide quality editing that readers can trust. Oh yeah? They failed here. Indeed, there are many pitiful indie authors out there. However, there are a lot of stellar writers out on the indie fringe. If you compare indie author J.F. Penn’s Prophecy to The Columbus Tome, you will find the balance tipped in favor of Penn not Berry. Why? Passages like this:
“You have no idea what I’ve gone through. No idea what happened to me.”
He was exasperated.
In the 1991 classic book on writing Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (which should be next to Strunk & White on the writer’s shelf), Renni Brown advises writers to respect the reader’s intellect and let the dialogue speak for itself. The example above is one of thousands like it in Berry’s book. Practically half the dialogue is explained in the text immediately following. I felt Mr. Berry took me for an idiot. If Ballantine’s revered editor Mark Tavani and Writer’s House star agent Simon Lipskar are not going to rein in their client, perhaps they could pay Ms. Browne’s company, The Editorial Department to do it for them. The least they could do is buy him a copy of Self-Editing.
That lone example is not the only type of writing transgression that ruins the work. Mr. Berry constantly jerks the reader backward and forward in time with “he recalled that ___” and “His mother told him that long ago ___” with cute but unnecessary backstories. A good quarter of this book is completely irrelevant to the story. Why should I care that the airport in Kingston is under construction? It had nothing to do with the plot and the scene was already set. Other observations are just plain dumb. At one point the hero, in a race to find an artifact before the bad guys get it and start World War 3, goes into an ancient synagogue and “admired the stylish vaulting and the stained-glass windows.” Really? No sense of urgency? This was a thriller, right?
You get the idea. I won’t go into details about the ridiculous quantity of jump-cuts and point-of-view changes. No need to talk about the italicized flashbacks every five pages that were mildly interesting and occasionally relevant. We needn’t dwell on the repetitive explanations. (After the sixth time I read, “de Torres was a converso” I was ready to prank-call Mr. Berry at home like a sixth grader, Is your refrigerator running? And repeat the call for every time I had to read about frickin de Torres. Holy crap.)
If you like Steve Berry, you’ll like this book. If you like an exciting tight thriller told by an actual expert in religious history, read Ms. Penn’s book instead and save ten bucks. 20th Century publishers beware—writers like Ms. Penn are kicking your vaunted stars in the butt.
Peace, Seeley James
(All opinions are my own, the others mentioned in this post were not consulted about nor involved in forming this post.)