Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: The Amber Room (Audio)


On my drive down to visit my dad over spring break, I stopped at a Books-A-Million just south of Atlanta and picked up an audio book to pass the time during the drive.  In the end I chose The Amber Room by Steve Berry, read by Scott Brick, hoping to find at least a good historical fiction.  I was disappointed.  I will not try to avoid revealing anything from the book because I cannot recommend it to anyone.
  1. None of the characters had any real depth.  The character that most nearly has depth is the White Russian introduced at the book's opening.  Unfortunately, he is murdered only about 1/4 of the way through the book.  As for the remaining characters, once the character is established, they never do anything remotely surprising.  The closest thing to a surprise is when the most prominent female villain does not indulge in unnecessarily murdering a teenage boy.  (Unnecessary murders are sprinkled generously throughout the book.)
  2. Related to the first point, few characters are more than stereotypes.  This is particularly true of Germans, who are in every instance cold and obsessive, and in every case but the heroes' police contact (a mostly absent character) are ruthless.  The first stereotypical image that comes to your mind when you think "Russian bureaucrat" completely defines the Russian bureaucrat the male villain meets in St. Petersburg; the southern lawyer who runs afoul of the heroine is neither more nor less than the stereotype suggests.  How about the hero and heroine?  They may not be exactly a stereotype, but they are a well-established cliche:  they love each other deeply but their quarrels led to divorce.  From the moment the (ex)-husband is introduced, you know they will get back together again; this is even suggested by the heroine's father in his will.  Sure enough, their remarriage is the epilogue to the story.
  3. Speaking of stereotypes, readers should stop trying to distinguish speakers by faking accents, as Scott Brick does here.  Fake accents are incredibly distracting.  On top of that, Brick uses a bad German accent to indicate nationality and a "feminine" voice when a woman is talking, but he can't do both, so German women voiced by him sound exactly like the German men.
  4. The level of violence is not really justified.  OK, I get how the billionaires at the top of the club of art thieves might feel themselves to be above the law, but hiring hyperviolent sociopaths as henchmen really does not make sense.  The string of murders (which includes both the heroine's father and both the hero's parents, together with everyone on their plane) was bound to lead someone back to their bosses.  This is especially true when they were murdering people who were very, very far removed from being threats; for example, people asking questions that might lead them to a mine from which the Amber Room had been removed 50 years ago.
  5. That whole mine episode made no sense whatsoever.  They left in the mine three large German trucks that had been used to bring in the Amber Room.  How did they get it out?  With their own trucks?  Why not just drive the German trucks out?  It's not like war surplus German trucks would have looked that out of place in 1951 Germany.  But no, they had to leave them in the mine and then murder anyone who got close to it, because apparently the trucks were some sort of give-away.  Yet they didn't even do that right.  They shot and killed some foreign help, but they didn't bother to remove all their identification, and they let one of the dying men spell out the name LORING (the billionaire who had him murdered) in the sand.
  6. The dating of the book is ambiguous at best.  Several references within the book make it seem to be set in the late 1990's, probably around 1998.  Additionally, the descriptions of air travel sound distinctly pre-9-11.  However, the book is set only in "the present day"; it really couldn't be set in even "the recent past" because it ends with the Amber Room being publicly restored to Russia, an event which is conspicuous for not having been in the news.  The book's publication date is late 2007.
  7. The worst thing about the book was the graphic and deviant sex.  The (German) male villain, in particular, seemed to be a cross between Will Riker, James Bond, and Ted Bundy.  He pursued rough sex with every woman he met, frequently by means of rape followed by murder.  The long pornographic descriptions seemed to be more an indulgence of a very ugly side of the author than anything required to develop characters or move the plot forward.

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