Last Snow by Eric Van Lustbader
I think I’ve figured out Eric Van Lustbader’s motus operandi for the Jack McClure novels. The first chapters of both First Daughter and Last Snow are legitimately good–interesting, intriguing, and with interesting twists. The rest of them? Not so much.
Last Snow opens with the murder of a US senator on vacation in Capri. Concerned, the American president puts Jack McClure on the case, an investigation that will take him from Moscow to Eastern Europe. Along the way, Jack finds himself working alongside Annika, a Russian FSB agent, and Alli, the First Daughter, as they delve further and further into a plot that will affect the entire world.
For nearly half the book, Lustbader’s pace is much improved–we only stray from Jack, Alli, and Annika when necessary to the plot. Last Snow is much more coherent than First Daughter. But Lustbader loves his backstories and convoluted relations too much to let the main plot continue unhindered. The worst backstory offender is one that characters contemplate during car chases (slow ones, to be sure, but still car chases), with the runner-up being a backstory that evolves into a subplot that continues long after it’s useful to the main plot. Pace is still punched in the stomach every once in a while. I cannot tell you how many times I, after a legitimately interesting chase scene, sighed in disappointment to find several pages of Jack attempting to deal with the death of his daughter (now with supernatural appearances that are never explained). However, it is much improved–there was even a thrilling chapter where an antagonist got closer and closer while the good guys thought they were safe. I know that sounds like the least to demand of a thriller, but it is a wild improvement over First Daughter.
Jack is his usual self–fairly bland, given to introspection, and possessing a form of dyslexia no one has ever had in the history of the world. (I like to call it “magic dyslexia”!) Alli, who I enjoyed in First Daughter, has morphed into a character that I absolutely cannot stand. She’s obnoxious, selfish, and rude. When she and Annika first meet, she refers to her exclusively as “psycho-bitch”, sneers at Annika’s clothes and cosmetics, assumes Annika is trying to sleep with Jack or, at the very least, is promiscuous, and curses up a storm–never mind that Alli is the one forcing herself upon a delicate, top-security operation. Annika’s only reaction is a shot at Alli’s attachment to Jack, instead of the slap Alli richly deserves. Alli even gets her own poorly researched disease (Grave’s Disease doesn’t make you look younger; in fact, its symptoms are not very becoming at all) and an unexplained gift to match Jack’s.
Annika, refreshingly, fares mostly better. Certainly, she’s as slinky and sexy as any Bond girl (Lustbader weirdly starts describing her “mineral eyes” at some point), but she’s also competent. Interestingly, Lustbader’s stilted dialogue actually works for the Russian and Ukrainian characters, since English isn’t their first language. (However, no two grown Russian men are going to use the word “frenemies” unironically. Ever.) As far as the supporting cast goes, I particularly liked Annika’s Dyadya Gourdjiev–her uncle–a genteel and jovial gentleman who is not all that he seems. The supporting cast is actually very well-done, since Lustbader can’t randomly toss out their backstories at the reader. He does, however, manage to give two disposable assassin backstories. You have to admire that sort of tenacity.
The actual mystery itself is actually fairly creative–it involves recent Russian history and it’s more time sensitive and compelling than the mystery in First Daughter. The villains and even some of the good guys are just complex enough, and there are some moments that are honestly shocking. While the pacing tends to knock it around a bit and it isn’t the best plot in the world, it’s actually interesting and much more epic than First Daughter.
I’m starting to get concerned about how Lustbader writes women. This might be a trait of the thriller genre, but I can only count two female characters who have not been sexually assaulted at some point–lower the age to thirty, and I can’t count any. Alli is bursting with so much rage and distaste at traditional femininity that even I, who once turned up for a middle school discussion on gender in the best drag I could manage at twelve, was offended. Sharon, Jack’s religiously flip-flopping wife, honestly gets angry at Jack for not being home–despite the fact that Jack has one of the most demanding jobs on the planet. Jack also leaps into bed with Annika much too quickly after Sharon dumps him over the phone. It’s nothing explicitly wrong–I did enjoy Alli in First Daughter and Annika in Last Snow, but the patterns are freaking me out.
Bottom line: While refreshingly free of some of the problems of First Daughter, the pacing is still being encroached upon by way too much backstory for everyone and Alli has turned into a wildly unsympathetic and spoiled character. It’s superior to First Daughter, but there’s better thrillers out there.
I received this book to review from Tor/Forge.