The Da Vinci Code seems to have established a new breed of thriller that appears to be here to stay. The idea of all these secrets tumbling out of the past that endangers the present-day world on a scale that’s unheard of, or ripping away our religious beliefs, and usually presents some faction of the Roman Catholic Church as the bad guys can – on the surface, at least – seem a little far-fetched. But thriller readers keep reaching for them as they spill out onto the shelves.
Unfortunately, not all of the writers are capable of backing up their painstaking historical research and deep thinking with the kind of action that thriller readers long for. It’s one thing to present a ton of background information, history, legend, and possibilities, but it’s quite another to do so in a manner that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time.
Eric Van Lustbader’s new novel, The Testament delivers the action in spades, and spins the twists and turns on a dime. I first encountered Lusbader when he was writing fantasy, a trilogy about the Sunset Warrior that had Asian flavors. From there he went on to write the wildly popular Nicholas Linnear books as well as other books with heavily researched Chinese and Japanese backgrounds. Lately he’s managed a return to the fantasy genre with his books about The Pearl and even penned a new Jason Bourne adventure.
The book opens with a provocative battle between a warrior of the Church and armed men who pursue him for the secret he carries. From just the first few pages, I knew I was in good hands. I wasn’t going to spend all of my time clambering around musty bookshelves looking for ancient secrets or ferreting out hidden puzzles and codes. All of that has its place, of course, but I do enjoy a white-knuckled plunge through two-fisted adventure.
After the prologue, the action shifts over to Dexter Shaw. He immediately comes across as a man on a mission, and one with a ton of secrets he’s carrying around. Both are true. He meets with his son, Braverman (hereafter called Bravo), and they immediately get into one of their usual fights. Dexter wants to tell Bravo something that he considers vastly important, but Bravo says they’ll talk later.
That chance doesn’t come. Only a short time later, Dexter confronts one of his long-time enemies and barely escapes with his life. A few minutes later, he’s killed.
Bravo gets the news and can’t believe it. His father is dead and his sister has been blinded in what everyone is calling a tragic “accident”. Bravo knows what happened wasn’t an accident. In the hospital, his sister reveals his destiny to him, that he has to find and protect whatever his father left hidden out there for him to find and protect.
Backtracking his father’s movements and contacts quickly puts Bravo in touch with Jenny Logan, who has a multitude of secrets of her own. Even as they’re making introductions, mutually deciding not to trust the other for reasons of their own, they’re attacked by the Knights of St. Clement, who are the bad guys that killed Dexter.
The action is fast and furious. Lustbader is a seasoned pro at getting the most bang out of his buck when it comes to this kind of writing. His character-building is spare, done in the rush of events that move with the speed and urgency of whitewater rafting. I had a great time trying to keep up with the rollicking plot, back-and-forth dialogue, and all the back story that kept cropping up when it was necessary.
An interesting note is that not only do the good guys buy the farm in this book, but so do some of the villains. The hit team that first goes after Bravo and Jenny are extremely memorable, and their back story fits right into the tale, deepening the characters effortlessly and giving them more reasons to kill our hero and heroine than simply, “I’m the bad guy. It’s my job.” In fact, I was surprised when I felt sorry for them. That was totally unexpected.
The crux of the plot revolves around “The Quintessence,” a miraculous element that brought Jesus Christ back to life – unknown to anyone else. Although there is a testament (which gives the book its name) written by Jesus that outlines the rest of his life. The Order of the Gnostic Observatines chooses one person for life to be the keeper of this most fabulous of secrets that promises immortality. Dexter Shaw was the last keeper of the testament, and he’s left that dangerous job to Bravo.
The Testament is a great thriller read. It’s a little light on history and legends compared to The Da Vinci Code (but even that book got some things wrong, as evidenced by the writing that swiftly followed publication), and other practitioners like Steve Berry, but what Lustbader offers is what he’s been selling all along: fantastic action that zips along at a breakneck pace. Will it change your life or give you more research at your fingertips than any of the other Da Vinci-style thrillers out there? No. But what the book will give you is hours of reading pleasure and vicarious thrills. And just enough of a puzzle to keep you turning the pages late into the night.