I generally love Steve Berry books. They’re reliable action/thrillers with a great protagonist, Cotton Malone, former Magellan Billet agent and now a bookshop owner (which you have to love). Berry’s books also possess a good dose of fanciful history – meaning, he researches them, used aspects of known history and adds his own deft touches. While The Charlemagne Pursuit ticked some of the boxes in that it featured Cotton, was action-packed and had some reconstructed history woven through the plot-line, including maps and hieroglyphs, something happened between the idea and the execution; something that rendered the finished product less than satisfactory.
Ostensibly, this novel is about Cotton being given the file that reveals “the truth” of how his father, a Captain on a top-secret US submarine, died while on a classified mission. Told one version of events from the age of ten, Cotton discovers he’s been deceived (he “can’t handle the truth”) and this sends him off on a journey of self-discovery. But the truth can be a dangerous thing, especially when it threatens those who for years have relied on keeping it hidden to maintain their positions.
Learning that Cotton threatens to expose secrets kept for decades, there are those at the top of the US defence tree who will do anything to ensure secrets lay buried, even if means Cotton’s (and anyone else involved) interred with them.
The action takes place in parallel narratives and moves from part of Europe, to the USA and, ultimately, Antarctica. While I could accept most of the improbable story-line (it’s Steve Berry after all, and I’m prepared to have some fun), the part I struggled most with were the villains. It’s as if Berry found them in Villains ‘R Us. First, there were the German characters, the malevolent matriarch and her beautiful twin daughters, Dorothea Lindauer and Christl Faulk, as well as the family’s henchman, Igor, I mean, Ulrich Henn. Then there were the American baddies – two naval personnel and a hired assassin. All of these people appeared to kill willy-nilly (even those who have shown loyalty and the ability to keep secrets – why? To add to the book’s body-count? Surely, as is the case, these connected deaths simply arouse suspicion…? D’oh!), or without really thinking through the consequences of the deaths.
Co-incidentally, Dorothea and Christl’s father was also onboard the submarine controlled by Malone’s dad and, like Malone, they’re interested in separating fiction from fact but to do that, they need the file Cotton has just been handed. Hovering between aiding Cotton and trying to kill him (for really, really senseless reasons), the women in this family come across as two-dimensional clichés. They were so bland and predictable and basically, idiotic. For example, one of the sisters just kills people at random. Likewise, the sisters’ relationship is explained in such Freudian 101 terms, it was laughable. They’re forty-eight and mummy still manipulates their hearts, minds and thus actions? They seek her (and dead daddy’s) approval constantly? Didn’t buy it – not even when their massive inheritance is thrown in for good measure. Nothing they or their mother did made sense – their motivations, their insistence on mis-leading, deceiving, aligning themselves with various people (just ‘cause?), making phone calls, tormenting, whether for good or not, didn’t even propel the plot, they mostly hindered it. I couldn’t believe that Berry had constructed such pathetic, misguided, stereotyped women who were narcissistic, selfish and dull. Seen through Cotton’s eyes, we’re told the twins are beautiful, all right, but when he concedes they’re smart, courageous, conflicted, deceitful or hurting or anything else, we’re told, not shown in the writing. That Cotton sleeps with one is just ridiculous in terms of his character. While I accept he may have just wanted a shag, it wasn’t presented that way and appeared more a lapse of reason that was just plain out of character. Cotton is not a skirt-chaser.
As for the American bad guys – again, poorly constructed clichés that serve the story one-dimensionally. They were also patently obvious in their Machiavellian ways, which makes me wonder why it took so long to tumble them? I mean, one of the guys has been murdering his way to the top for years (and one of the female characters has no trouble exposing all of this when it suits the narrative – so how come every other idiot in the Whitehouse can’t do the same???), and no-one notices? That’s just silly…
I could continue, but I won’t, because it’s not all bad and there are some genuinely thrilling moments.
Evoking the spectres of Nazis, Charlemagne, Aryans, angels, heavenly language and the possibility of an advanced race who roamed the planet long before we humans were capable of such advanced exploration, never mind advanced subs, polar exploration, and dysfunctional family dynamics this book really tries to cover a great deal.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I hoped and that’s because the female characters (with the slight exception of Stephanie Nelle) pissed me off. So did all the villains. I just couldn’t believe in them in any way shape or form. Worse, I couldn’t credit that Cotton would either.
Perhaps that’s credit to how firmly Berry has established Cotton has a protagonist in fans’ minds that I found his dealings with the twins and their mother ridiculous and unlikely. Sadly, because they’re the core of this story, it renders the plot and its execution weak.
Overall, not a great addition to the Malone series, but I will keep reading them because I know Berry can also produce the narrative goods.