November 30 2006 (21:39:00)
480 pages. Ballantine Books, 2006.
I hardly ever read books that I don't like. If I do, it's usually for work or a requirement for some course I'm taking. I started out reading The Templar Legacy, and considered putting it down unfinished. What do real book reviewers do? I guess they finish whatever they're reviewing, whether they like it or not. And in many cases they may not. Partially as an exercise in feeling like a professional reviewer and also to satisfy my curiosity about the book, I did finish it.
Templar is a "thriller," that is, it's in the genre that includes books by Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum. In my mind, a thriller is not exactly a novel about espionage, or war, nor is it a mystery -- although there is usually some type of mystery involved -- or crime novel. Generally these books will involve unlikely people caught up in large events that may affect much of the world, if not all of it. International travel is frequently involved, and as a result the writers of these novels are often travellers themselves, and there will be much description of various far-off places, and a great deal of atmosphere imparted from various locations. Successful thrillers -- that is, successful in entertaining me -- include good, complicated, multi-dimensional characters that we become very involved with. Ludlum often uses "ordinary" people who get caught up in big events, events that force them to act heroically in dangerous, exciting conditions. There is suspense, and it keeps us turning the pages.
There's a mugging and a suicide in The Templar Legacy's first chapter, so the action starts right away -- after a disturbing prologue that describes some grisly events from the 14th century. We are introduced to Cotton Malone and Stephanie Nelle right away, and we begin to understand that there are major issues at stake. The plot has to do with an ancient order of monks who defended the route to the Holy Land after the Crusades, their lost treasure, arcane knowledge of the true nature of Jesus Christ, resurrection, and redemption. It's probably got something in common with The DaVinci Code but I can't say for sure, as I haven't read that book. But I sense that DaVinci has some pretty attractive coattails, and Berry wouldn't be the first writer to see such an opportunity and take advantage of it -- but that really isn't what I didn't like.
What I did not like about Templar is that the writing is just too thin. The characters are not believable, and I didn't feel involved with any of them. There is some real tragedy mentioned in the plot, such as the suicide (or murder) of a man who was husband to Stephanie, and the father of her son, Mark. Perhaps this is a reflection of excessive sang-froid on my part, but I just didn't care about them. Cotton Malone should be, during the reading of such a novel, like my old friend -- warts and all, but an old friend nevertheless. He wasn't. I just didn't care about him, either. They all reacted strangely, and their dialog was unnatural.
And how about the main bad guy? First of all, I couldn't help waiting for the punch line that must have been set up by his name: De Roquefort. The big cheese? Granted, I betray my pedestrian tendencies in pointing this out, but Mr. Berry would have been well advised to name his villain something that doesn't make me want to snicker every time I read it.
There are too many distractions in this book. Several times, Berry puts an illustration on the page of some mysterious tombstones and versions of a cryptogram that his characters eventually must decipher. If the cryptogram was as simple as he represents, it would have been solved five hundred years before and saved his characters a lot of work and trouble. Malone is, we are told, possessed of an eidetic memory. "Not photographic ... an excellent recall of details that most people forgot." But it seems that Mr. Berry forgot -- if this remarkable asset figures in the plot again after it is mentioned, I totally missed it.
I am learning something about book reviewing here: it is much harder to write a negative one. I really just didn't like the writing, but that's not a good thing to say. I need to show you exactly what I mean. So I have to go back through the volume now, looking for examples. This is a lot like work.
"He carried the book to one of several club chairs that dotted the store, settled himself into the soft folds, and started to read. Gradually, a summary began to formulate."(page 59)
"The first assailant lay sprawled on the floor. The other man was likewise prone and still... he spotted something at the back of one of the necks. He bent close and plucked out a small dart, the tip a half-inch needle.
"His savior was privy to some sophisticated equipment." (page 70)
Ideally in a novel like this I shouldn't really even notice the writing -- it should be hard-wired to my brain and I should be turning the pages too fast to analyze sentences and wrinkle my nose at phrases like "privy to some sophisticated equipment." Templar lost its grip on me too often, and I was too tempted to pick it apart.
"...'the mayor said the grave was in danger from treasure hunters.' She shook her head. 'So a few years ago they dug the priest up and moved him into a mausoleum in the garden. Now it costs three euros to see his grave ... the price of a corpse's safety, I assume.'
He caught her sarcasm. (page 113)
An easy catch.
There are loose ends in this book, a thing to be abhorred in a genre chiefly based on intricate, suspensful plotting. For example, on page 135, Malone and Stephanie Nelle read a note to the deceased Ernst Scoville that warns "prend garde l'Ingeneur. 'Beware the engineer...'" We are later introduced to an unbelievable and fantastic character named Cassiopeia who is identified to be this engineer. There is, however, never any reason to beware her, nor is this warning ever sufficiently explained.
I probably should have been taking notes while reading this book, it would make the task of explaining what's wrong with it much easier. The next time I decide to finish a book out of professionalism, I'll get a pencil and paper.
Don't pay money for this book, but if you need something to read on a plane and it's available for free, it's probably fine. Sorry, Steve Berry -- I'll admit up front that you're a better writer than I am, but then nobody's paying me.
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