Strindberg's Star by Jan Wallentin

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Strindberg's Star by Jan Wallentin

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: A novel packed with ideas and which moves along well, but relies on unlikeable characters and too many plot contrivances to be fully enjoyable.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 447 Date: June 2012
Publisher: Corvus
ISBN: 978-1848879874

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Fiction seems to go in waves and the current trend seems to be for Scandinavian authors. First there was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Reg Keeland (translator) and its trilogy. Then, The Snowman by Jo Nesbo and Don Bartlett (translator) was named as one of Richard and Judy's Book Club selections. Now, we have Strindberg's Star, a debut novel from Swedish journalist Jan Wallentin who, if he repeats the success of those others, we will be hearing lots more about.

Just as he is preparing for an appearance on a television show, a stranger approaches Don Titelman and asks for his help. This man, Erik Hall, has recently discovered a mysterious body at the bottom of a flooded mine shaft. Whilst perfectly preserved, medical checks confirm the man had been dead for nearly a hundred years. The deceased apparently committed suicide whilst holding on to a metal ankh with some strange writings on it.

As Don Titelman finally gives in and goes to visit Erik Hall, someone else makes the same journey. This woman, Elena, wants to see the ankh Hall has found as well, but unlike Titelman, she is prepared to kill to get her hands on it. It is this situation Titelman finds himself in and the Police don't believe his protestations of innocence, even after his lawyer appears seemingly from nowhere. It seems that this ankh, along with a metal star, contain a secret that points to an entrance to the underworld somewhere in the Arctic circle. This entrance leads to secrets and technological advances that were thought lost for decades and the recent discovery could be the secret to unlocking the entrance once more.

I love the basic idea behind Strindberg's Star. There's a great mixture on genres here, which helps set it slightly apart from many of the thriller novels around. It starts by looking like there could be clues to follow like Dan Brown's writing, but there are also paranormal and science fiction elements blended in. Some of the methods of travel the characters use and their ability to find tools when they need them makes me think of Lee Child's Jack Reacher series and as they take to the sea and the Arctic ice towards the end, there are shades of Clive Cussler. In short, whatever type of thriller novel you enjoy reading, there are likely to be hints of it in this novel.

Unfortunately, this does expose some of the weaknesses in the story. For all these differing elements to come to requires a fair amount of deus ex machina, where things happen suddenly without explanation. This goes beyond the simple setting up of characters in a locked room with an easily discovered window, which also happens, to the easy accessibility of a way to cross borders undiscovered, to long dormant talents suddenly reawakening just when they become essential to the plot. Suspension of disbelief is always required in thriller novels, but here the reader needs to suspend it over a canyon and let it go. Perhaps the most annoying occurrence was when Titelman, who had been secretive for most of the novel, suddenly decides to trust a shady character who then turns out to have been related to the mystery all along. Admittedly, the plot couldn't have worked any other way, but it became quite annoying after a while.

The other major issue I had with Strindberg's Star was that the characters didn't have any redeeming features. I always like to be sure which side I should be rooting for in a novel as it helps me to become more involved, but I didn't find that here. The supposed hero was someone with a serious drug habit to help him through the day and his accomplice was quite a cold and distant person. The people attempting to stop him would stop at nothing and had a Nazi background, but seemed more dedicated than our hero. This was further muddied by late revelations where characters who had been bad found something inside them so they could help our hero and his apparent friends betrayed him. Thanks to the movements between genres of the plot and that of some of the characters, this was never a novel that hooked me. Indeed, the most likeable character here were the metal ankh and star of the title.

What Wallentin has left us with here is a very good idea that, sadly, comes across as being poorly executed. However, there is enough here to suggest that with the range of ideas, he may well have a bright future as a novelist once he settles into it a little more. The imagination is here for him to become a success, but it needs some of the rough edges polished off a little before that happens. I await future developments with interest, but this debut novel has a little too much working against it to set Wallentin alongside his Scandinavian predecessors just yet.

For the best of Scandinavian writing, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Reg Keeland (translator) and The Snowman by Jo Nesbo and Don Bartlett (translator) offer something a little more.

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