FIRST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2018
The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, by David Lagercrantz
This episode of Lisbeth’s story starts with a two-month prison sentence: despite her heroic rescue of a little boy whose life was under threat, she is imprisoned for a minor infringement connected to his case, a classic example of being damned for doing something, or damned for doing nothing. In true Salander fashion, she hunkers down to silently serve the time – until the terrible plight of a young Bangla Deshi prisoner being abused and bullied by the terrifying prison Top Dog offends her sense of fairness: in due course the Top Dog is sent to hospital with shocking facial injuries – and Lisbeth’s sentence ends early for ‘good behaviour’.
She is free again, free to investigate more aspects of her horrendous childhood in orphanages and psychiatric hospitals and, with the usual expert help from Millenium Magazine editor extraordinaire Mikael Lindkvist, try to expose the perpetrators behind early psychological experiments on twins that all went shockingly, fatally wrong. For Salander has a twin, Camilla – as evil as she is good, and they were both subjected to the same psychiatric ‘evaluations’. Thanks to her guile and beauty, Camilla escaped and fled to Russia and a life of crime with their gangster father. Now Salander feels that it is time to find out how many other cases of ‘separated’ twins are out there, and who authorised it – and most importantly: why are people starting to die so that these ‘experiments’ may remain secret?
As with the previous book, there is plenty of action; Lisbeth is still a champion karate expert, not to mention the Queen of Hackers and a superior mathematician ( is there nothing this girl cannot do? Yep! She can’t cook – not that she cares – she adores junk food.) but this story has a couple of subplots that require a lot of characters; it is as though Mr Lagercrantz had several causes he wanted to promote and tried to fit them all into one story. That is a shame, for the plot slows, moving along by fits and starts: the ghost of Stieg Larsson must be tsk-tsking and wagging his finger.
Nevertheless, Mr Lagercrantz’s mastery of the complex character that is Lisbeth Salander is absolute; he’s still a worthy successor to Stieg Larsson and if there are a few less subplots in the next novel that’s all to the good. FOUR STARS
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz,
Continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series.
Swedish author David Lagercrantz has been given the daunting task of continuing Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster series of novels about Lisbeth Salander, ace computer hacker, mathematical genius and all-round general recluse and misfit, and Mikael Blomkvist, crusading investigative journalist, founder with his some-time lover Erika Berger of the high-end Millennium Magazine, their weapon against graft and corruption in high places. They have many enemies; those who don’t want their dirty secrets exposed, and colleagues from other publications who envy their stellar reputation. Millennium is constantly under siege from those whose causes would be furthered if it became defunct, and when this story opens, Blomkvist and Berger are facing a takeover that has definitely turned hostile.
Mr Lagerkrantz has done a formidable job of filling in the backstory from Stieg Larsson’s three wonderful books; he is meticulous in the origins of Salander’s and Blomkvist’s relationship and has fashioned a credible, clever plot that every reader will find compelling, especially as Lisbeth’s long lost sister Camilla – as beautiful as Lisbeth is not – makes an appearance to equal that of her half-brother Ronald Niedermann, a monster impervious to pain. It is very clear that the siblings’ awful father, Alexander Zalachenko has bequeathed some horrific genes to his unfortunate progeny, but Lisbeth is the only one with a conscience and a sense of what is right – which makes her a formidable opponent of her sister, whose hatred of Lisbeth is as deep as it is irrational.
The reader has to concentrate; Mr Lagerkrantz’s plot is not simple. Professor Frans Balder, a technological genius and front-runner in the race to produce superior artificial intelligence is murdered by intruders but all they take are his computer and cell phone. Unfortunately for the assailant, Balder’s 8 year-old son, August, witnesses the murder. He is severely handicapped by autism – but he draws beautifully and it is absurdly easy for him to produce with photographic realism his impression of the death scene and the killer. Which means that he has to die, too.
Enter Lisbeth Salander: she literally comes to the rescue of August with a flying rugby tackle and the hijacking of an innocent motorist (who will never be the same again!) – she knew Professor Balder and has uncovered from her various hacking exercises (the National Security Agency has received special attention) that his worries about keeping his studies and conclusions secret were anything but unfounded. She takes it upon herself (with the help of Blomkvist and Berger) to go into hiding with August, whose traumatic experiences Lisbeth identifies with completely. She is a formidable protector and once again the reader is swept up and borne inexorably on the waves of suspense to the end of a great story.
Mr Lagerkrantz is a highly efficient and meticulous writer; he has covered every base, recreated Mr Larsson’s characters superbly and generated enough suspense for more than one novel – which I hope means that another won’t be far off for the beautiful, evil Camilla is still at large, and the NSA is still highly suspect despite being on the side of right. This is a very competent sequel and I look forward to reading the next one. FIVE STARS
A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett
The Willards and Fitzgeralds are the leading citizens of Kingsbridge: young Ned Willard hopes to make 16 year-old Margery Fitzgerald his bride, but her father and brother have more grandiose plans – if they marry her to the local Earl’s son, they will become related to the aristocracy. Marrying for love is laughable; everyone knows that marriages are alliances, meant to strengthen families religiously and politically. Ned doesn’t stand a chance, and removes himself from the cause of his sorrow by taking up a position as assistant to Sir Robert Cecil, the Protestant Princess Elizabeth’s adviser. He finds the intelligence work he is required to do an intriguing distraction to his personal troubles and in time comes to enjoy his employment – especially when Elizabeth becomes queen upon Mary’s premature death, and to every loyal Catholic’s horror, restores Protestantism as the rightful religion of England. For this great sin she is declared illegitimate and excommunicated by the Pope, and plans are immediately in train to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.
This tumultuous time of history in Mr Follett’s hands is like reading a superior thriller, especially when the machinations of the French court are revealed; Catholic Mary of Scotland must take the throne of England from the bastard Elizabeth (even though Mary has lived most of her life in France with her relatives, the powerful Dukes of Guise), thus consolidating the power of catholic Europe: Italy, France and Spain are rich and powerful enemies and little Protestant England is woefully outnumbered in every way. And it does no-one good to advertise their Protestant faith in those countries, as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of thousands in Paris proves.
Mr Follett’s minor characters are well-realised and cover the bases for the action he imagines in Spain, France and the Netherlands: Ned’s brother Barney is a sea captain and gives a blow-by-blow account of the huge defeat of the Spanish Armada – and I have to say that normally, my eyes glaze after a while at detailed descriptions of antique weaponry and battle tactics, but Follett is such a great story teller that my eyes were glued, unglazed, to every page, which is no mean feat!
The story ends with the Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes in 1606. Again, the event is written with heart-stopping suspense, not easy to sustain because everyone knows the outcome and this is a 900 page doorstop of a book – at the very least you have to have strong wrists! – but, apart from some truly sloppy editing (Ned is a ‘dreamboat’ and Margery is ‘small and sexy’. Characters say OK every now and then, too. For Heaven’s sake, I don’t expect the prose to be heavily Shakespearean, chockful of Prithees and How Nows, but GIVE ME A BREAK!!)
I am now wondering if Mr Follett will set his next story in the New World, for one of Ned’s grandsons is a Puritan and about to set sail on the Mayflower. Regardless of editing shortcomings, I am still enormously impressed by ‘A Column of Fire’. In Mr Follett’s capable hands, history is more than well served. It is the great adventure that it should be. FIVE STARS