Thursday, February 20, 2014

THE TENTH CIRCLE by Jon Land: A Review

(Blaine McCracken #11)
Jon Land
Open Road Media; December 24, 2013
ebook, 536 pages
Thriller, Suspense, Mystery, Historical, Contemporary
4 out of 5 stars

Blaine McCracken races to stop terrorists from unleashing an ancient weapon of unimaginable power at the President’s State of the Union Speech

Blaine McCracken pulled off the impossible on a mission in Iran, but his work has just begun. Returning to the US, he faces another terrible threat in the form of Reverend Jeremiah Rule, whose hateful rhetoric has inflamed half the world, resulting in a series of devastating terrorist attacks. But Rule isn’t acting alone. A shadowy cabal is pulling his strings, unaware that they are creating a monster who will soon spin free of their control.

Finding himself a wanted man, McCracken must draw on skills and allies both old and new to get to the heart of a plot aimed at unleashing no less than the tenth circle of hell. A desperate chase takes him into the past, where the answers he needs are hidden amid two of history’s greatest puzzles: the lost colony of Roanoke and the Mary Celeste. As the clock ticks down to an unthinkable maelstrom, McCracken and his trusty sidekick, Johnny Wareagle, must save the United States from a war the country didn’t know it was fighting, and that it may well lose.

I jumped on the action-packed "Blaine McCracken" band wagon with absolutely no idea of what I was in for, except that the lead character created by Jon Land's prolific imagination is an exiled and indestructible CIA agent who "knows 14 ways to kill a man in under two seconds". The  omonymous series kicked off in the distant 1986 with The Omega Command  and The Tenth Circle is the 'literally pyrotechnic' installment # 11. Quite a first ride for me.

With a break-neck pace and unrelenting suspense, the action unravels in a modern day scenario of terroristic attacks and anti-muslim hate, but the story reaches back to the 16th century, and what is great about it is that Land serves up his spine-tingling and voluminous thriller in 100 bite-sized chapters, each and every one leaving the reader on the edge of a tantalizing cliffhanger. The author breaks up his 536-page narration quite frequently, enhancing that much needed sense of fast-moving action. 

The novel is rife with suspense... never a dull moment around Blaine McCraken and his loyal sidekick, Johnny Wareagle, but to some extent that could also be the problem with this book. While I greatly enjoyed the historical references (the "Lost Colony" of Ronaoke and the maritime mystery of the Mary Celeste, two of history greatest puzzles), I found those fascinating premises to be more remarkable than the somewhat outlandish plot. If you are not exactly a big fan of over-the-top, comic-book-style, larger-than-life, "save the day" kind of heroes, you may find yourself struggling to maintain your suspension of disbelief. To a reader who is looking for a more sophisticated storyline and a more subtle characterization, McCracken & Co. will appear as one-dimensional and not readily believable. Moreover (something not uncommon in serial novels), when dialogues are used to introduce back-story information in an attempt to bring readers up to speed with characters and their background, conversations will sound stilted and contrived, detracting from the overall credibility of the story.

Recommended to high-octane adventure lovers and fans of hard-boiled spy thrillers.

***Review copy graciously offered by the publisher via NetGalley in return for an unbiased and honest review

Historical facts
The historical themes that Jon Land quite craftly incorporated in the thematic structure of his latest novel really are the reason why I chose to read The Tenth Circle. Kudos to the author for finding a thought-provoking way to link two unresolved  and completely unrelated mysteries of the past with a modern-day apocalyptic scenario.

The Lost Colony of Ronaoke
To this day there has been no sure evidence or explanation about what exactly happened to the Lost Colony of Ronaoke in 1588. What its governor, John White, found on his return from the old continent was a ghost town: the English colony, established on a free land known today as Virginia, had vanished in thin air, people and houses nowhere to be found. The only things left behind were a few small cannons, an open chest, a tall fence built around the perimeter of the village, and the word "Croaton" carved on a fence post. 

(A detail from a map in the 1590 edition of Thomas Hariot's Briefe and True Account of the New Found Land of Virginia)
The most common hypothesis explaining the disappearance of the settlers go from the preposterous alien abduction to some more plausible although not entirely acceptable theories: the fact that the colony was completely stripped of houses and bodies, but with everything else still standing in place, makes it hard to believe in the devastating force of a hurricane, or in an epidemy, for that matter. No bodies were ever found. The settlers may have simply abandoned the island, spontaneously or forcefully, under the threat of the local natives. Still, would they have carried their own houses along with them? Interestingly, "Croaton" is the name of a close-by island. Was that cryptic message carved on a fence post a lead for John White?

The Mary Celeste
On December 5th 1872, an American-owned merchant brigantine was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, unmanned and completely abandoned, her cargo untouched and the crew's personal belongings still in place. The Italy-bound Mary Celeste (that was the name of the ghost ship) had set sail from New York with a cargo of commercial alcohol, but it was erraticaly heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar when it was spotted by the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia. The Mary Celeste remains the greatest maritime mystery of all time: theories range from a curse, to natural causes (the noxious vapor emission coming from the barrels filled with raw alcohol), a mutiny or a very likely act of piracy, but none of the explanations as to what ultimately happened to the seven crew members provides a fully convincing answer to the puzzle.

(An 1861 painting of the Amazon, later renamed Mary Celeste, by an unknown artist, probably Honore Pellegrin)

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