Preston and Child

The Pharaoh Key: Not a Good First Impression

As you probably know by now, I’m not exactly a prude when it comes to page-turning action books what the establishment turns its nose up at. I make no secret that I loved The Da Vinci Code, and still read Dan Brown’s books when they are released.

But, to my surprise, I found that I actually do have standards below which I get annoyed. Who’d a thunk it?

The Pharaoh Key was purchased at an airport for a couple of reasons. The first was purely research–I was interested to see what kind of books in the adventure (as opposed to international espionage) genre were selling in sufficient numbers to justify high-value real estate in a Hudson News outlet. The second was that the book looked really fun, and it could also serve as a gift for my father, who enjoys this kind of thing.

The first red light was when my dad, after reading it said he thought it was awful, but since he’s more into the spies than ancient treasure, I assumed that was where he was coming from.

It might actually have been where he was coming from (I didn’t ask him when he read it and haven’t discussed the book with him since), but my own dislike for this one comes from a completely different source: the writing makes Dan Brown look like Oscar Wilde, and the outrageous stuff that happens often throws you out of the plot.

I’m usually fine with that second one, so I dug into it a bit more. Just why did the outlandishness of the whole thing bug me so much?

Perhaps the first part is that, unlike Brown, the actions and descriptions of some of the exotic places didn’t ring true. The way the characters remove themselves from police custody at one point is utterly imbecilic, while the plot point of a lost tribe living in the Egyptian desert rang hollow; for all I know, it might be true, but it just seemed false, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m used to. Maybe that’s because I am an SFF reader. In science fiction and fantasy, authors are experts at making things the reader knows don’t exist seem real. Perhaps I’m spoiled, so when people who have the advantage of usually writing plausible things stretch credibility, I expect them to be better at it than Preston and Child were in this case.

The entire book is full of stuff like that, so my own review, had I left one on amazon, would have been 2 stars. It’s certainly not a one star book: it’s grammatically correct and the writing isn’t actually bad, just a little weak in some key areas.

But, going back to the reason I purchased this one in the first place, I’d like to remind everyone that that my review isn’t the one that matters. I checked Amazon, and readers seem to really like this book, and it’s currently sitting at 4-and-a-half stars. A lot of people have weighed in on it, so it’s not like a couple of the authors’ friends bumped it up.

Clearly, Preston and Child know exactly what their public wants, and write to that target with precision and skill, and while the style might not impress a fellow writer, the ability to find the style and deliver it every single time is extremely impressive. Popular fiction isn’t easy to write, and prose that is technically sound but still appeals to the majority of readers is a finely-honed skill. I probably would have loved this book when I was twelve, and many people still do. That is awesome, and no one should begrudge the authors an iota of their success for catering to their public.

So while I didn’t like this book, I respect it enormously. And now I know what is selling in the adventure thriller market, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, timeless seems to be the exact opposite of the Preston & Child book reviewed above. While theirs is simply written and almost completely asexual, Timeless is very well-written and sexually charged. The only similarity is that both are fast-paced page-turners. You can check out Timeless here.