By Ted Bell
Harpercollins Publishers ($9.99)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
PHANTOM is a modern espionage thriller blended with elements of other suspense genres. Sometimes this technique works, sometimes not. This fairly hefty novel also seems a union of two separate, shorter books, with completely disparate plots that never become one. Thick paperbacks seem to sell more briskly, and I'm guessing that a couple of earlier works were shuffled together, like an old Ace Double. At least with those, you got two different covers.
Lord Alex Hawke is a top British agent cut from the James Bond stock, yet something of a stepchild. He walks and talks like a spy but is unpersuasive in the role, as if learned by rote from reading fanciful spy tales of the fifties. Everything he does is Bond-ish, but it's the Bond of the early novels (more like parodies of these, really), as though the 21st century had no effect on spycraft. I've known a lot of British people and have yet to hear "old chap" spoken, yet everyone seems to use this and other post-war epithets continuously. Dialogue and narrative are out of date, stilted. If I read another "...as was his wont." I would run for the Tylenol. There are butlers and housemaids and chauffeurs everywhere, serving exquisite cuisine, precious brandies, and rare wines. Men hobnob at posh clubs for drinkies and talk, women wait dutifully in the wings. We also meet the Queen in a maudlin, syrupy audience. As was her wont.
Lord Hawke is a covert agent of dubious value, as he's a worldwide celebrity, billionaire with luxury yachts, estates, and flies everywhere in private jets. More like a minister without portfolio, perhaps. Except that Hawke does not know how to speak Russian. Imagine a top-ranked spy from the UK who isn't fluent in Russian? Even civilian businesspeople grab their Rosetta as soon as they learn of their new transfer. The point being, why didn't the author change this? It's easy to write some paragraphs demonstrating Hawke's fluency. It's not as though a real person had to learn real Russian.
The novel also exists in a partial alternate universe where current events are different. That, or the author didn't do his homework. For example, the Russian KGB is still in full operation, despite the fact it was dissolved in 1991 due to corruption, replaced by the FSB and other covert agencies. Putin is PM of Russia, even though he only served in that post 1999-2000. Earlier, Hawke brilliantly identifies the tread tracks of the new Russian T-95 tank. Except that the T-95 was never manufactured, production cancelled due to budget cuts. And no, PHANTOM isn't a retro story, because we learn that the Libyan revolution has indeed occurred. So this is modern times, 2012, but with an alternate history line that naggingly trails behind like a stubborn child at the mall.
People also seem to exist in shadow-time. Three years previous, Hawke's true love, Anastasia, daughter of the Tsar (yes, I said Tsar, who's then killed in an airship explosion, yes, an airship in 2009, very Steampunk) is "with child" as the narrative might describe, whereas modern Brits would say "preggers." Three years later, Hawke celebrates his son's third birthday. That's right, third birthday just three years after conception. No record of whether Anastasia screamed (a tip of the cap to Mick Jagger) but she must have the gestation period of a gerbil.
Anyway, Book One tells of Hawke's search for his beloved Anastasia, reunion, and return to Proper Civilization with his son on knee, soon to be reared as his peerage entitles him. Followers of the dead Tsar blame Hawke for the airship disaster (I smiled whenever I came across "airship") and want to kill the son, just to be mean. After several failed assassination attempts, Hawke blows up the bad guys. End of Book One.
Book Two, interwoven with One, is the real PHANTOM story. The evil comes from a supercomputer that's planning to take over the world. Wow, that's a unique and original story line, eh? Anyway, the computer wreaks havoc on society by making amusement park rides go ballistic, sinking cruise ships, trashing military facilities, and other terrorist-style fun.
The computer also has science-fictiony powers, such as making musical phone calls that hypnotize people into committing murder. And magically creating a perfect, thinking, intelligent human android, apparently from stuff just lying around the house. This is a level of power only seen by the 2001 Monolith.
Finding the culprit and his cyber-location is perhaps the only part of the story that is engaging. Clues are investigated and leads tracked down, and the author writes a fine mystery thriller here. Which sags into parody for the big dustup, sadly.
When the location is certain, this immense and immediate threat to the world's existence isn't dealt with like it would be for real: a tactical nuke down the pipe. Instead, Lord Hawke and his team of tough pals attack via Hawke's new sailing yacht. Yes, a sailing yacht. No airships were used in the making of this finale. And although the battle was meant to be rousing and exciting, it plays like some low-budget action flick, rugged heroes bantering insults at one another while fighting off baddies, after which Mister Big Evil Computer dies faster than a discount store laptop. End of Book Two.
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