J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: I am Pilgrim, aka the Spy epic I never knew I wanted.

As I’ve said before, I have the odd luxury of really getting along with and liking my wife’s family. A big part of it is because they’re all readers – every single one. My sister in law was reading The Elfstones of Shannara while we were together for Christmas. My wife’s grandparents read several books a week, and it seems every time we visit them, they give me a book or two to read. This time around, her grandmother gave me a book, and told me that it was simply too gross and disturbing for her to be interested. I sheepishly admitted that I don’t mind that at all – in fact, that sort of thing interests me more often than not. I started reading it, and went through about 50 pages before realizing that I really liked it. My father-in-law walked by, saw what I was reading, and said “Yeah, I really liked that one – I think that and The Martian were my two favorite books I read last year.”

The book in question, of course, was I am Pilgrim.

The blurb reads like this:

A breakneck race against time…and an implacable enemy.

An anonymous young woman murdered in a run-down hotel, all identifying characteristics dissolved by acid.

A father publicly beheaded in the blistering heat of a Saudi Arabian public square.

A notorious Syrian biotech expert found eyeless in a Damascus junkyard.

Smoldering human remains on a remote mountainside in Afghanistan.

A flawless plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity.

One path links them all, and only one man can make the journey.



What I liked:

The scale. As the title to this review suggests, this book is nothing less than epic in scope. The paperback version I read weighed in at close to 800 pages, and the actual main plot to the book doesn’t actually start until around 300 pages in! What you get before the book “starts” is an extremely talented author taking all the time he needs to introduce you to a main character with many, many layers – both in his professional life in “the secret world”, and his personal life – and give you the background and motivations for an antagonist that is so realistic, it’s unsettling.

I also really admired how Hayes seemingly effortlessly weaved between the present and past with a masterful use of tenses. You’re never left behind when Scott starts recalling a previous op in his life as a spy, and as someone who has read many books that have tried to do something similar and failed miserably, I know that is not an easy thing to pull off. And the best part is that each of his memories are actually interesting to read about. Too many times, when a book does this, it seems like a waste of time. But here it fleshes out a character… no, a world… every time. When the Saracen is introduced, you get a few chapters showing how his plot comes to fruition. When it becomes necessary to meet the President of the United States, it goes into detail explaining what kind of man he is with showing, not telling. It does this by describing his campaign in detail, along with his personality and rise to power. This book is not afraid to do whatever it takes to give you the information you need to really understand the characters and situations. It translates into a really long book, but the good news? It is never boring or draggy.

So, yeah. If I had to classify this book honestly, I’d call it a spy thriller epic. I wish it were an actual genre. I’d read them all.

The brutality. This book isn’t amazing or memorable for the occasional gory descriptions, but within the parameters the book sets for itself, it makes sense. As I touched on in my intro, it starts with a really grisly crime scene. It’s gross enough to turn off some readers from the very start. It’s funny, really, because the book as a whole is not all that gory. But when the story demands it, it doesn’t pull punches.

Case in point: if you never really knew what waterboarding torture actually involves to the most minute detail before, you will after reading this book. I don’t blame you if you consider this a negative.

The clever dialogue. Dialogue is harder to do than it looks sometimes. And it’s funny how powerful it is, when done well. One of my favorite characters in the entire novel is a Turkish man in charge of the hotel in Turkey where Scott stays for a while. He’s immediately endearing for his terrible English and jovial personality. As someone who has dealt personally with many people from Mediterranean countries, his personality was so accurate it was scary: outgoing, kind, treating strangers like family. And this was a minor character, built mostly through dialogue. Incredible.

The climax. A good thriller has to have a good climax. Makes sense, right? Most of the ones I’ve read have done it with thrilling chases, crazy gunfights, desperate battles that challenge the very fiber of our hero’s being. While it’s true that this book also has a gunfight close to the end, it’s not the real climax.

No, the real climax is an interrogation, held in a rapid fire style that draws from every last scene the book has taken you through. It’s amazingly written, and I would love to see it done in a movie someday. It was so… unusual, it was awesome.


What I didn’t like:

Everything is wrapped up neatly. A little too neatly. There’s a fine line, I think, between foreshadowing in a novel, and making everything a mathematical cause and effect. This book takes you back and forth in time, across the world several times, and in the mind of multiple people. It seems a little strange, then, that even seemingly minor footnote characters early on in the novel come back to take a major role later in the book. It also seems a little too convenient how everything comes together at the end. The saving grace to this is that the case that the novel begins with is not actually solved neatly with a bow, so I guess it’s hyperbole for me to say that everything is done too neatly.

I know all the rules… when you show a gun, you need to use it, don’t waste the reader’s time, etc. But when it’s done this much, it just shrinks the world the characters live in, and that’s not a good thing. Especially when the book is so epic.

That doesn’t mean that this novel isn’t amazing, though. Because it totally is.


The verdict:

If you like thrillers, I Am Pilgrim is a must read. Period. It’s an amazing story, written with an amazing eye for detail. Terry Hayes is definitely instantly an author I will keep my eye on for future novels. It’s definitely going to be one of the best books I’ll read this year, which is sad, because it’s only March.





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This entry was posted on March 9, 2016 by in Book recommendations, Books, Literacy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , .
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