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Book Review: The Ascendant

By (January 10, 2014) No Comment

The Ascendantthe ascendant cover
by Drew Chapman
Simon & Schuster, 2013

It’s never an easy or a particularly pleasant thing to react to a novel as you might to a block of wood. You can do the routine calculus of devotion: the average novel probably takes at least a solid year of work to conceive, write, and rewrite, followed by another year to sell, clean, edit, print, and distribute. Hacks will always abound, of course, and in such cases the books drop from presses like overripe fruit from the bough, painlessly plunging to the ground, breaking open to release a faint stink, and then subsuming into the mulch. The sainted Edgar Rice Burroughs sometimes boasted that his first drafts were also his final drafts, and John Creasey could start and finish one of his “Toff” detective novels in the course of a single rainy London day. But the polite 21st-Century assumption, even with despised genre fiction, is that authors care about their work. They almost always claim so, in their now-mandatory opening remarks, and they certainly can’t all be fibbing.

It’s simple Newtonian physics: passionate effort wants commensurately passionate response. A debut author especially would probably want to evoke even a violently negative response rather than no response at all; “a virulent piece of crap,” to them, would be infinitely preferable to “it’s all fairly standard.”

Alas, Drew Chapman’s debut thriller The Ascendant is fairly standard. Chapman is a Hollywood screenwriter, and The Ascendant is a Hollywood screenplay constipated into paragraphs. All its characters are one-dimensional enough to go straight to general casting: the gruff general, the sexy female captain, the nefarious foreign nationals, the rag-tag team of computer-nerd catchphrase-spouters, the tight-knit group of the hero’s buddies – and of course the hero himself.

That hero is hot-shot 26-year-old Manhattan bond analyst Garrett Reilly (the hero’s name in these things will always be Irish; it makes character-building so easy! And sure enough, of this Reilly we’re told, “Arrogant. Emotional. Volatile. He likes to drink”), a glib, handsome street-fighting kid with a chip on his shoulder since his beloved brother was killed by a sniper in Afghanistan. Garrett has a gift for numbers, for the flow, the synergy of numbers as they crawl across his computer terminal. When he notices one morning a large number of US treasury bonds being sold off on the ‘grey market,’ he cynically sees only a chance to ‘short’ the dollar before it tanks and thereby make himself a pile of money. But a secret cabal in the US Army intelligence community has also noticed the shifting of billions of dollars of US bonds, and that cabal – led by crusty (South Boston!) General Kline and inspired by sexy Captain Alexis Truffant – are convinced not only that the Chinese government is behind those bond sales, but that the move might be the opening salvo in a very new, very modern kind of warfare.

When they’re tipped off that young Garrett spotted the shadowy trades on his own hook, they start watching him, and when he narrowly escapes a truck-bomb in downtown Manhattan, sexy Captain Truffant snatches him up – and gets some of that volatile emotion for her trouble:

“We had you under surveillance.”

“Why?”

“This is not the time. You’re in danger.”

Garrett shook his head, settling his body back into the seat. “I’m not moving until you tell me what the fuck is going on.”

Alexis wiped the dust and blood from her face. She took a deep breath. “There are people who would like to talk to you. They’ve been watching you, and they’re impressed. If you come with me now, I will introduce them to you. And they will explain everything.”

Garrett stared at her. Alexis nodded over her shoulder. “That helicopter is waiting to take us to Washington.”

Well, Georgetown, where Garrett meets General Kline and gets a block of exasperated exposition that could, with depressing accuracy, be boiled down to “we need a loose cannon, a maverick who plays by his own rules”:

“So, how do I start this? I’m sure you’ve heard the old cliche – generals are always preparing to fight the last war. Well, unfortunately there’s truth in it. The armed services spend a lot of time and money grooming the next generation of leaders – West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy. Bright men and women. We explain to them how the last war was fought. And then we tell them to think about how to fight the next one. But in the process we make them like us. We make them military people. That’s the whole point – we want them to be soldiers. But that …” And here Kline hesitated, carefully choosing his words, not for effect, but, Garrett guessed, to avoid insulting anyone else in the room. “That approach can have its drawbacks.”

liam hemsworthBad enough that nobody actually talks that way; much worse, much less believable, that a ranking general would then go on to explain why all armed services officers are essentially useless:

“We are susceptible to groupthink, no matter how hard we try to stay independent. It is human nature to be influenced by others. It’s that ability that allowed the human race to evolve from being solitary hunters on the African savannahs to standing around drinking scotch in a million-dollar town house in Georgetown.”

What this group needs, with NORAD and the NSA at its disposal, is a rough-and-ready smart-aleck kid with a devilish grin and a numerical gift he very crucially didn’t need to work to achieve (since he’ll eventually be played on the big screen by whichever Hemsworth brother is out of rehab at the time of shooting, he can hardly be characterized as studious, now can he?). Once Garrett throws in his lot with Kline & Co., The Ascendant proceeds with the ironclad predictability of a computer chess program. Having read just as much of the premise as I’ve given, you could easily sketch out in detail every single thing that happens in the rest of the book.

It’s all fairly standard. More’s the pity.