In many ways I Am Pilgrim is a standard race-against-time story: The protagonist (code-named "Pilgrim") a remarkably skillful former head of a super-secret U.S. agency few know exists is brought out of retirement to find a terrorist ("The Saracen") before he's able to release a particularly virulent strain of the smallpox virus on an unsuspecting American public. Along the way he tracks his prey using his finely honed skills (coupled with the occasional bit of good luck), has setbacks and successes, and plays cat and mouse with international bad guys that want him out of the way - permanently. In other words, pretty formulaic stuff that could be the synopsis of any one of a number of novels.There are aspects to this particular book, though, that set it above most of the others in this genre.
First and foremost, Hayes creates richly detailed characters whom one really comes to understand. It would have been easy enough, for example, for the author to simply use a stereotypical Taliban extremist as his villain, but he goes the extra mile in showing readers this individual's childhood and how, exactly, his loathing of Western culture evolved over time. The end result is an exceptionally cold-blooded and remorseless killer readers will have no trouble seeing as a mass-murderer; the effect is absolutely chilling. The hero, too, is multi-faceted; we learn how Pilgrim's character was formed and come to admire his cleverness and daring. I particularly enjoyed the fact that he was drawn somewhat ambiguously; he's not necessarily a 100% "good guy," and from time to time his actions are morally questionable. He remains likeable throughout, however, exhibiting a combination of light-hearted bravado and steely-eyed resolve reminiscent of James Bond a difficult balance for any author to achieve and done extraordinarily well here.
The quality of the author's writing also stands out. He goes beyond simply conveying action, taking great pains to paint detailed scenes that come to life for the reader:
For mile after mile we crisscrossed the sprawling city four and a half million souls marooned in the middle of the desert seemingly half of them employed by Aramco, the world's largest oil company and interviewed people about a family which had long since vanished. We sat in the majlis the formal sitting rooms of poor houses way out in the suburbs and questioned men whose hands were trembling, we saw dark-eyed kids watching from shadowy doorways and glimpsed veiled women in floor-length burkas hurrying away at our approach.
Hayes' background as a screenwriter is evident; at over 600 pages I Am Pilgrim could appear intimidating, and yet the plot is so well paced that it never drags; at times the action sequences had me almost reading faster than I could turn the pages.
There are a few problems with the novel that could keep some from finding it an enjoyable romp, the most prominent of which is the plausibility of many of the book's action scenes. There were several times when I had to suspend disbelief; if you want a book in which every piece fits neatly together and makes logical sense, this isn't the one for you. Also problematic may be the long set-up as readers are introduced to the main characters; the beginning is definitely more character than action-driven. Personally, I found these sections interesting and was completely drawn in by Hayes' prose. And finally, included are some pretty brutal scenes (including passages depicting torture) that could be off-putting for some readers.
Those quibbles aside, I Am Pilgrim makes for a great (if somewhat weighty) beach read; it's fast, suspenseful and involving, while at the same time not requiring a great deal of thought or analysis to enjoy. I highly recommend the novel to those looking for a well-written and entertaining thriller with which to while away the summer hours.
This review is from the June 4, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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