I feel like I’ve heard amazing things about this series (though I couldn’t tell you where)… But I can’t say I’m impressed. Relic is a thriller, a sort-of mystery in which the murderer isn’t going to be the butler or anyone else remotely as ordinary but something entirely Other. It’s not a genre I ordinarily go in for, but since I’ve picked up an installment of the series here and there in various formats I thought I’d start at the beginning.
It didn’t begin well. It opened with the sort of prologue that usually makes me sigh, this one in a South American jungle with an expedition going sideways and pear-shaped all at once. And then it picked up and dropped down in Manhattan, as bodies began to drop.
One question: How can you get ballistics on blood spatter? Because Preston & Child seemed to think that’s a thing.
Some of the science and technology in the book seemed … kind of adorable. Originally published in 1995, you wouldn’t think it would be quite as outdated as it was – but it really was. The information gained from the DNA analysis seemed pretty far-fetched. Can you really tell from reading the DNA how long a gestation period is, or whether a species’ estrous cycle is suppressed? Or even the average weight of a given creature?
The storytelling was at times very nice. I made a note at one point: “What the hell happened to that guard?” He was placed in apparently imminent danger, and then … not mentioned again for long enough that I honestly started wondering if he’d been forgotten by the authors. And then, “Oh. There he is. Nicely done.” But I have to say I was pretty surprised when what I assumed was the climax of the book came eight hours into a twelve-hour book. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that in the midst of all the action there is substantial damage done to the museum and, of course, to a number of exhibits – and that hurt. Artifacts thousands of years old, smashed to bits for no good reason. That always hurts – more, in some cases, than character deaths do.
There’s a fair amount of repetition in the style of writing. There were at least a couple of mentions of how the creature looked just like the little figurine from South America – and then someone who should know better asks “what does it look like?” And if the New York FBI agent had given the same directions to the SWAT team one more time I would have started swearing. The whole plot was a little predictable – although there was at least one death I didn’t expect. At one point Pendergast murmured “not yet” to himself over and over as he waited for his shot … which was absolutely moronic given how often everyone stressed the creature’s enhanced senses. He might as well have been yelling “Hey! Come kill me over here!”
It was such a shame that the old botanist told our heroes about the Mbwun legend, and then a few minutes later (audiobook time) the long-lost journal told almost the exact same story. There was no new revelation, no surprise, despite the fact that it was a first-hand account from someone who seemed to actually have experience of the terrible bargain the Kathoga tribe made. Nothing. The story of a bargain with the devil in which people have to eat their own children should not be boring, but, told for the second time in the space of a handful of chapters, it was.
I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement about the characters; they skirted the borders of cliché at times, with the irascible cop, the high-handed Fed who swanned through doing what he needed to, the scientists so focused on their jobs that they’ve forgotten about life, the journalist who … well, ditto, in his way. Margot not quite but almost escaped being a token Girl. I will say I grew to enjoy FBI agent Smithback, with his Southern gentility and complete disregard for anything trying to get in his way.
I wish the journalist in the group hadn’t chosen to act like an idiot journalist at a really stupid time. It would have made so much more sense for him to be helpful and useful, and then capitalize on that later for a story. And were the mayor’s fine words real, or because he just heard the reporter called out as such? I don’t believe that was ever clarified – in this book, at least.
There was a sort of anti-sexism that surprised me, and kept surprising me – both in its usage and in how it affected how I absorbed the book: the redoubtable Miss Rickman is consistently referred to as just “Rickman”. And almost every time, right up to the end, I kept thinking they were talking about a male character. Women just aren’t often referred to by their last name alone (I think it happens to my brother all the time, but to me only once at one job, because there were two of us with my first name and the other one came first). What particularly made it odd was that Margot Green is consistently referred to as Margot, but Rickman is Rickman.
I know there are plenty of real examples of Evil Bureaucracy putting profit, pride, and publicity before public safety, and so on – but it gets old. They’re never my favorite stories. They’re not unrealistic – and maybe that’s why they’re not my favorites. I don’t understand why, say, the directors of a museum would insist on proceeding with an exhibition opening when doing so might put thousands at grave risk. Or why an FBI agent in uncharted waters would fail to take heed of every concern, no matter who it came from, when thousands of lives were about to be at grave risk.
I think it would have been a lot of fun to have everything going on below the surface – the beast or whatever cornered and captured in the basements, everything fixed and solved by the heroes of the piece while the nasties celebrate uninterrupted above, and then the good guys showing up disheveled and blood-spattered and exhausted, maybe damaged – and triumphant.
The sound effects in the audiobook were incredibly obnoxious: echoes in the basement, a muffled overlay for someone on the phone or walkie, etc. Please. Don’t. It was especially annoying because it was obviously meant to add a touch of realism – but something that could more naturally have added realism and urgency, a simple amping up of intensity in the narrator’s voice in speed and timbre, didn’t happen. Part of the climax was read as calmly and sedately as the places in which emails and computer readouts are read. The delivery of Smithbeck and his accent was enjoyable, though.
After a while, that extended climax began to feel like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure or something, with several discrete groups struggling to survive against a force greater than they are, amounting to a disaster. It just kept going, and going, a difficult situation becoming almost impossible, becoming almost unsurvivable. On the whole, it wasn’t entirely my cuppa. I think I will keep going with the series, though; there was enough there that gave me hope for later stories that no longer involve the plot points of this one and its immediate sequel. Anyhow, I own ’em – I’ll probably get around to ’em.