First Daughter by Eric Van Lustbader
Thrillers and I don’t have much of a history. I think I’ve only read The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, which I found entertaining and fast-paced, if not the greatest books ever. So when I got the chance to read and review First Daughter and Last Snow, I thought, why not?
First Daughter takes place during a turbulent time in American politics. A neoconservative president stares down the last days of his appointment before handing the reigns over to Ed Carson, a moderate Republican. A secular movement in America is gaining ground, much to the neocons’ horror. When the president-elect’s daughter, Alli, is kidnapped, Jack McClure is called in by her father to rescue her. Jack, still shaken by his daughter’s sudden death, agrees–and finds himself chasing a conspiracy much bigger than he thought.
Quite honestly, the whole thing feels cartoonish. The neoconservatives, led by a very thinly veiled George W. Bush, are almost hilariously over-the-top, abandoning their morals and turning to torture and water-boarding civilians way too easily. (I don’t feel this is a spoiler, as it is instantly apparent who the bad guys are.) First Daughter also takes several shots at religion, especially the hypocrisy of some particularly fervent Christians in politics. But frustratingly, it never takes an actual stance on the issue. While Jack goes one way concerning religion, Sharon goes the opposite. Books usually side with their heroes, and the book’s narrative feels oddly at odds with Jack’s final conclusion on religion and the afterlife. The mystery itself is interesting during the chase when it manages to escape Jack’s backstory long enough to actually develop, but once solved, dissolves upon closer inspection.
The novel’s frankly excellent opening–taut with tension and containing a marvelous twist–is immediately demolished by laborious pacing. Lustbader is absolutely enthralled with Jack, and thinks the audience is, too. Whenever I started getting into the (thin) mystery, Lustbader dragged me back to Jack’s plodding developing years and Jack’s boring domestic life. I can’t say I didn’t like Jack being taken under the wing of a minister–it was nice, but much too slow for a thriller. What could have nicely taken up a prologue chapter or been revealed through dialogue has pace-demolishing chapters devoted to it. While Jack’s dyslexia is a nice, humanizing touch, it creates two problems. The first is that I’m pretty sure dyslexia doesn’t give you the sort of superpowers Lustbader thinks it does. (It apparently makes Jack’s brain run much faster than a traditional one.) The second is that characters often randomly despise dyslexics. While I understand it’s probably why his father beat him and the cause for his unorthodox upbringing, I cannot, for the life of me, think why a certain character would hate Jack as much as he does instead of simply discriminating against him for his disability.
Lustbader’s character development is as stilted as his dialogue–I quite literally rolled my eyes as Alli explained that her friends called themselves “the Outsiders” after a particular book. Surely they could have come up with the moniker themselves! For whatever reason, these characters do not feel realistic at all. Nina randomly opens up about childhood trauma to Jack days after they’ve met. Jack’s wife, Sharon, has moments where she suddenly accepts or rejects religion and vacillates between hateful spite and hesitant acceptance of Jack. I have to admit, I giggled when she melodramatically screamed out to the sky that there was no God at her daughter’s funeral. It was just so silly that I had to laugh.
This is getting too negative, so let’s take a moment to focus on the positive. Alli is actually an interesting character, although Lustbader fumbles with her occasionally–instead of seeking help for a traumatic incident, she grows sullen and withdrawn for absolutely no reason, and she is occasionally pretentious, but the latter feels more like a flaw of the young rather than Lustbader writing a poor character. Alli is a decently turned character in a sea of stock characters, although she goes off the rails towards the end. The villain is also quite good, although I can’t, for obvious reasons, spoil it. This almost makes it worse–there was hope for a better novel here, if the pacing had been fixed and the characterization gone under a total rehaul.
I was particularly appalled by the novel’s inconsistencies. I was actually shocked to discover a passage where a character leaves the room twice. Lustbader also initially introduces Alli’s college as a “girl’s school”, earning him my eternal ire. (All together now–it’s a women’s college!) Jack flashes back to a traumatic, alienating memory twice–and it’s the exact same text both times. And as a girl who wears deliriously bright nail polish with the shortest nails possible (Starfleet blue today!), I found it really, really weird that Lustbader made his characters emphasize that Alli wears her nails short “like a boy’s”.
Bottom line: Despite a wonderful opening, First Daughter is too slow and just too silly–dyslexia does not give you the superpowers Lustbader thinks it does and people do not act like that.
I received this book to review from Tor/Forge.