The Art and Science of the Thriller Part I: A review of The Icon Thief
The Icon Thief
There are two topics I need to cover here. Whether they make one post or two depends on to what extent I waffle on — so most likely it will be two (and it is). The first is a review of the book, a reasonably objective look at its strengths and weaknesses (if any!) as far as I am able. The second is a few thoughts about the ‘as far as I am able’ clause, relating to the relationship between author and audience in the age of the internet.
First, the book. In dust-jacket parlance, it is a page-turner. I’m glad I read it. It is skilfully constructed and intrinsically interesting, so that I found myself reading ‘just one more’ chapter, then another, then another; then it was midnight. Rarely do I sit up late reading, but I did with this book. The undoubted depth of research is worn lightly, used to add telling touches but not to show off — characteristic of the author’s discipline. The prose is clear and functional and gets out of the way of the story — appropriate in a thriller, if perhaps not as consistently evocative as in some of the author’s shorter fiction. The characters are portrayed believably and economically, and the author never falls back on the laziness of having a character who is merely sadistic or ‘evil’ or anything as childish as that. Everyone has their reasons for what they feel must be done. This leads to one of the book’s most interesting qualities — a sort of intimacy. The are no large-scale histrionics. The world is not going to meet with nuclear cataclysm. We are not in cartoonish James Bond territory. Life is not cheap, and people matter to each other. The body count is, on reflection, not insignificant, but they are made to signify. Killers tend to know their victims and kill them face to face, not gun down bystanders or nameless blue-uniformed cannon fodder at a distance. This solidity makes the violence, when it comes, very effective.
I came to Alec Nevala-Lee through his short fiction in Analog, and I suspect that means I come to the novel with different expectations from those of a thriller reader picking the book up in an airport (it would make great reading on a plane or an interstate coach). The work of his I first encountered was ‘Kawataro‘, followed up by the acclaimed (hey, it’s in Dozois’s bible!) ‘The Boneless One’, (though I like ‘Kawataro’ better), and on through other more recent appearances. Both these stories have in common a strong sense of menace, and palpable atmosphere, and an underlying credibility, all things that work in the context of a thriller. And indeed I would say one of the great strengths of The Icon Thief is that it is hard to tell where the author’s research stops and his imagination begins.
This book is an absolute entertainment machine. It hooked me in within a few chapters, it made me worry about people, it made me wonder what was going to happen and what the secret might be, and at the end it satisfied the questions it raised and left me wondering what some of the characters — Blume, Powell and ‘The Scythian’ — would do next; and, in the case of the latter two, what they had done before. The book brings together Russian mafia, the American art world, a cast of interesting characters with pasts that have shaped them but don’t get in the way, and a plot whose (almost) every twist and turn seems natural and yet which is still capable of surprising. This is a very assured first (published) novel, and I suspect I’ll be reading its follow-ups, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire. I can’t help but wonder, though, if we might see something more…major?…after these three books. Nevala-Lee knows how to put together a thriller — this is no formulaic book, but I used the word ‘machine’ on purpose — and this is where part II of this review comes in. Some artists benefit from strictures. Circumventing them, finding new territory within them and new ways to look at old territory, is a highly creative process and it gives somewhere to start in a way that a blank page and a lack of limits does not. This novel works within the thriller conventions. I think Nevala-Lee is good enough to allow himself a wider canvas, a broader, more human story, less driven by the needs of plot and genre and more by the people in it. Perhaps I am thinking of his science fiction, which I think pulls at the limits of SF whereas the The Icon Thief does not subvert the thriller genre; on the other hand, short fiction can afford to be more ambitious and less commercial. I do await a more personal work from this author. Personal, but I doubt self-indulgent; his work shows too much discipline for that. The Icon Thief is carefully constructed, intellectually constructed — almost scientifically constructed — and that is a great strength, and perhaps its only real weakness; there is a sense that it perhaps does not hit as hard as it might. But this is where part II comes in — am I only perceiving a weakness because I have read Nevala-Lee’s blog, where he quotes rules for writing, and talks about beats and construction of plots? Has he made me conscious of these aspects of writing? Has the author of this novel educated me such that I can (at least vaguely) glimpse the machinery behind the story, where once I would have been carried along, oblivious? Am I the reader who knew too much? This all relates to the new relationships between creator and consumer that the interweb allows, and that is the subject of part II.