I’ve been reading Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s “Pendergast” series of macabre-but-not-quite-supernatural thrillers for the better part of a decade – and every year, I wait eagerly for the latest installment. Last year’s “Crimson Shore” ended on the mother of all cliffhangers, intimating the return of the series’ most iconic antagonist, and “The Obsidian Chamber” picks up immediately thereafter.
(There’s a lot I could say about how this book fits into the overall Pendergast continuity, but I’m keeping this review spoiler-free.)
For sheer reading enjoyment, “Obsidian Chamber” is probably my favorite Pendergast volume since “Cold Vengeance.” Though some installments of this series have felt conceptually scattered (“The Wheel of Darkness” and “Cemetery Dance” spring to mind), here the plot bolts ahead at a breakneck pace, veering from a drug smuggling boat in the frigid North Atlantic all the way to the sun-blasted Kalahari Desert in Botswana. The relentless kineticism of certain early Pendergast novels – “Dance of Death” and “The Book of the Dead” come to mind – is on full display, and the stakes are delightfully high this time around. In particular, Constance Greene, Pendergast’s enigmatic ward, gets lots of time to shine – and for the first time, Preston and Child provide a fully satisfying look into her character.
The spectral FBI agent himself doesn’t actually take center stage until about halfway through the book – this makes sense in context (there are a lot of moving pieces in play), and feels a good deal like “Book of the Dead.” In many ways, this is a wise move – things definitely feel more dire when Pendergast isn’t around to problem-solve his way out of any situation – but it also means that a few series staples (Pendergast’s Chongg Ran memory palaces, anyone?) don’t get any time to shine.
It’s probably fair to say that the Pendergast books are hit-or-miss when it comes to their final climactic resolutions (despite consistently brilliant setups) – and frustratingly, “Obsidian Chamber” doesn’t deliver a coda that quite matches up to its gripping first and second acts. Perhaps my gut sense is wrong and “Obsidian Chamber” won’t actually be a one-off book, but actually sets up more drama to come with its antagonist; that said, the ending feels pretty conclusive where this particular villain’s story is concerned. All the pieces are there for a bang-up, gloriously brutal “Two Graves”-style finale, but instead readers get a decidedly PG-rated conclusion to an R-rated story.
As a heads-up, there are a ton of references to other installments of the Pendergast saga sprinkled throughout, so things may feel a bit foreign if you’re picking up the series midway through. Longtime Pendergast fans, though, shouldn’t – and definitely won’t – pass up “Obsidian Chamber.” Sixteen books in, Preston and Child keep bringing the goods.
As Pendergast volumes go, “Obsidian Chamber” is a cracking good read, even if it doesn’t quite stick its landing.
Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.