I'm not much for thrillers; I just don't care for the genre. I don't even like James Bond movies. Every fourteen or fifteen hours BBC America will air Goldfinger, and I know this is supposedly one of The Bestest Best Ever Bond movies, but all I get from it is a lot of talky scenes with a tabletop model of Fort Knox and a sense of how Get Smart would get the same dramatic tension without being so full of itself. So I was not the prime audience to read Ted Bell's Tsar: A Thriller, although there's enough of an audience to get him bestseller status. But, hey, the book was free and it was a sort of gift so why not read it? And is techno-thriller really all that different from science fiction? And why not read MacBeth as a murder mystery?
There's pieces of this that could be used to drag the book, kicking and screaming, into something near the science fiction genre, mostly in the infiltration of a new technology, fancy low-cost personal computers, into the world, along with some miscellaneous extra gadgets like zeppelins. And it's set in that Vaguely Future-y period close enough Bell can use whatever of current life is convenient and make up stuff for his plot.
What most stands out about the writing --- with very short chapters, and lots of them (it's about 500 pages) --- is how over-written it is. If you miss a chapter, or a couple chapters, there's no risk of completely missing important plot points because they will be repeated. This does mean the book's very convenient to people who aren't reading it in one, or a few, sittings: you can get pulled away and come back approximately where you were and have a reasonable reading experience. I wonder if there's a lesson for writing bestsellers in that.
The big technology developments got sillier to me the more they were explained, but that happens with all explanations of made-up science or technology. The political background, well, the book really wants to be a Cold War thriller and it gets around the inconvenient lack of a Cold War by making the villain a mysterious mystery person of mystery who wants to restore not just Soviet-style totalitarinism but even the Tsardom, and he's gone so far as to bring Pravda back from the graveyard where newspapers go to die. (This may not have been his doing; it may have been established in earlier books in the series.) There's all sorts of explosions and detonations and, in the climax, a race against time in which Our Hero keeps a countdown to an event that, as far as I can tell, doesn't have any specific time. Maybe the characters knew that in the movie there'd be a race against the ticking clock. Maybe spies just like racing ticking clocks.
The book is not short on information dumps, entered with the delicacy of of emergency highway repairs, with big blocks where characters explain stuff, I suppose, to show how much the author researched things like `Red Square' meaning `Beautiful Square'. All the parties in the many intelligence agencies and secret operations forces are extraordinarily competent and on top of things,which goes against my recent audio-book reading of Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History Of The CIA, but I suppose people don't buy spy thrillers to see spies that have vague ideas of what's going on.
Though I'm not sure that Alex Hawke, the protagonist, actually does know what's going on. For about the first half of the book he doesn't seem to be doing anything that has relevance to any of the terror and chaos and whatnot going on around him. It turns out a relationship developed then has importance, but neither party in it has the plot as motivating factor. It's just a happy coincidence. Hawke, incidentally, gets to meet the imprisoned Vladimir Putin and learn what a really great guy he is and get told how he's a really great guy himself (a plot twist I didn't see coming because who would?), and gets to call the new leader of Russia an evildoing psychopath at the Nobel Prize Awards Ceremonies, and oh, by the way, he's a Lord but don't use his title because he hates titles. I didn't even know Marrissa Picard did spy thrillers.
I'm left with ambiguous feelings about this: I never really bought into the story, and I never really got fooled by any of the plot twists or developments except the one mentioned, and I have somehow absorbed enough spy-thriller mannerisms to see through story points several chapters ahead of time (NOTE: If you are in a spy thriller, any person who looks vaguely familiar who doesn't seem to have met you is a mass murderer and is nearly certainly out to kill you, often by indiscriminate bombing), but I'm not sure that isn't what the genre calls for. Part of the fun in genre fiction has to be seeing how well the author plays with the standard features, after all ... yet if I found so much of the structure dully presented then what do people who read this stuff all the time get from it? I won't be buying his books on his own, on the strength of this, but I can't say it was anything worse than mediocre.
Trivia: In 1848 the Canadian government suggested the Barings bank should be its sole financial agent. Barings refused, insisting they continue working with Glyn, Hallifax, Mills. Source: The Sixth Great Power: A History of One Of The Greatest Of All Banking families, The House of Barings, 1762 - 1929, Philip Ziegler.
Currently Reading: The Circus Fire: A True Story, Stuart O'Nan. This is kind of a special case of currently reading. I'd started out listening to it on tape, but the library's cassette seven was snapped. So I have to finish off this book --- apparently the first general history of the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 --- with the old-fashioned paper edition.