Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ryder: Bird of Prey by Nick Pengelley

Title: Ryder: Bird of Prey
Author: Nick Pengelley
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!

One of the Russian phrases at the start of chapter 21 didn't render properly in Adobe Digital editions. In place of characters or spaces are two boxes with an 'X' in them (page 104 of ADE version)
Page 141 (end of chapter 30 "...when'd he'd" should be "when he'd"

The Ayesha Ryder series is a highly fanciful cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones, with some Dan Brown tossed in for good measure. It's evidently set in an alternate universe - an assessment with which the author may disagree, but I have to disagree with him on that score in return: this "world" is so fanciful that it's honestly not realistic. In it, the Israelis and Palestinians are living in a shared nation, and air travel is by Zeppelin, to name two of the unlikeliest differences between this and the real world.

Although there are three books in this series out now, this is only the second of these stories that I've read. The first one by-passed me somehow. You can read them as stand-alones as long as you remember that you may find yourself missing some of the references if you do. I was favorably impressed with volume two, Ryder: American Treasure, but this third outing simply failed to make the grade.

The first problem showed up early, and it's that Ayesha Ryder is really Mary Sue! She can do no wrong, although she's always inexplicably suspected of (or blamed for) wrong-doing by someone each outing. I was impressed by her in the first one I read because she was not the trope white American. She's Palestinian, which is a refreshing change, although she was also a terrorist, so how an ex terrorist came to be, in effect, working for the British government is a mystery to me (which may or may not be covered in volume one - I don't know).

In this edition, we meet Ayesha hanging out with the British Prime Minister, who in this world is female and gay (although that latter characteristic isn't widely known). With the two of them is the Prime minister's secretary, who is female and bisexual as well as being a BDSM devotee. Or addict, more accurately. All the villains in this series are far more oddball than ever they need to be, which to me makes them more of a joke than a threat.

Ryder and the other two take part in an archery 'contest' trying out a replica English longbow. The PM can't even pull the string. The secretary, Bebe Daniels, handles it expertly and hits the bull's eye roundly in the middle, but Ayesha of course, splits Bebe's arrow with one of her own. This was where this book and I began to part ways in terms of it retaining my favor. It's quite okay, you know, to have your main character screw up on occasion. In fact, it's preferable to having her be Mary Sue, Handmaiden of Perfection, as she's depicted here.

Very shortly after this, the Prime Minister is reported to be dying of polonium poisoning, and Ayesha is the main suspect, being sought by MI5, the police, and Special Branch, and if the deputy PM Noel Malcolm has his way, the British army, too. Ri-ight! Here's where we encounter another departure from the real world. The prime minister seems to have surrounded herself with traitors and scoundrels, which is simply not credible. Yes, there may be a mole or a turn-coat on a team, but here it's like every edition of this series turns up yet another traitor at the gate. I simply could not credit that the government would be shot through with such people in the highest positions, especially someone like Malcolm, who's completely delusional.

In the deputy prime minister's case, he wants to break-up the United Kingdom and shed England's ties to the WTO, NATO, and the European Union. He also wants to force upon Scotland the independence it turned down just a few months ago, and force upon Northern Ireland a subjugation to Eire, which NI has consistently - and oftentimes literally - fought against. It's simply not conceivable that the prime minister, who is against all this, would have as a deputy someone who is diametrically opposed to her core beliefs.

By this time I was about a quarter the way in and I was already losing interest in what had, by this point, become a classic British farce, populated with grotesque caricatures, but incredibly it was about to become yet more farcical! The next thing we learn is that the Maltese Falcon (of Dashiel Hammet Fame) is not only real, but contains a second-rate Dan Brownian clue-cascade leading to the lost sword of Harold Godwinson (King Harold of the Battle of Hastings fame. The deputy PM is of the opinion that if he can only find the sword, it will magically convince everyone that he's right and England will be freed of its shackles! Drool much Noel?

Thus, a pell-mell chase for the sword is on, with Ayesha and some dude from the library at the institute where Doctor Ryder (Doctor Jones much?) works, directed by a clue in the Maltese Falcon, and descending into London's catacombs to find clues in Æthelred the Unready's (aka Æthelred 2.0's) grave which supposedly directs them to king Harold's grave. The problem is that none of this really was very well done or very gripping. This novel was not as well put together as Dan Brown's efforts, and he's hardly a sterling example.

Another major issue was that of American influence in British governmental affairs. The depths to which it supposedly runs in this story is simply not credible. Rather than turn out to be an enjoyable and mature yarn about spying and intrigue, this turned out to be more like the Spy Kids movies, which were fun as far as they went, but hardly to be taken seriously.

The one thing that kept me reading for a while was that I have actually been to the site of the Battle of Hastings, and to the ruins of Battle Abbey which stand hard by it, but Pengelley's fantasy that Harold's body is discovered intact and as well-preserved as if he just died is nonsensical. This is in a porous sandstone cave close by the salty ocean, and we're expected to believe everything has been preserved for a millennium? That's reality leaving on the bus over there.

The truth is that there are the remains of a headless and largely legless man in Bosham church which is a likely candidate for Harold's actual skeleton. He was reported as being dismembered after dying in the company of his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine at which point, and having no leadership remaining, the English, who were on the verge of winning not long before, finally collapsed and William of Normandy became England's new ruler. It was the last time England was successfully invaded. And no, the story of the arrow in the eye is by no means verified, and may well be due to a misunderstanding of the graphic novel known as the Bayeux Tapestry!

One of the most annoying aspects of this novel was the random flashbacks. Most of these were Ayesha's (to her Gaza strip past), but there was also one for the CIA operative, Danforth. This took the novel to ever more ridiculous heights, whereby we have Zeppelins flying over the Taliban. how absurd is that? They have rockets. The author apparently didn't think for a second about what a monstrously tempting and easily assailable target a gigantic Zeppelin would be to someone with a surface-to-air missile at hand.

I began routinely skipping these flashback chapters because they really contributed nothing to the story and were, frankly, really annoying interruptions. They felt like nothing more than padding (without which the novel would have drifted perilously close to the sub 200 page arena, I might add). It's never a good thing when the author includes paragraphs and worse, entire chapters, which actively encourage readers to skim and skip.

At about 70% of the way in, at the start of chapter 38, this novel became far too ridiculous to continue reading, even by its own standards. Ayesha is at this point in an ancient underground hall where equally ancient tombs are preserved, yet she starts a gunfight whereby damage galore is inflicted upon the ancient artifacts - and this woman is supposed to have earned herself a doctorate? If she had any smarts at all, she would have fired on these people before they got down the stairs, not afterwards where they have all kinds of room to maneuver and places to hide. At any rate, it was too laughable to continue, and I quit reading right there. I can't recommend this cartoon.

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