I am Pilgrim Review: a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers make this a must-read. Here are 8 reasons I recommend it.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is an epic, breathtaking chase from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back.
Hold onto your hats – I am Pilgrim is quite a ride
I am Pilgrim Review
Here (no spoilers) are 8 reasons I am Pilgrim will thrill you:
This is outstanding feature of the novel. Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels. This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having appeared in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife). But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds. This makes you care about them.
The action scenes in I am Pilgrim are thrilling. I loved the firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages and the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility. All will have you on the edge of your seat.
The consequences with which the world – specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are credible and horrific. The book illustrates the potential horror early on in microcosm. You pray it will not come about on a bigger scale.
Pilgrim himself has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). Other characters also have clear moral values. Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble.
Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book. He creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight one point. This is that when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them. Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing. The book is full of fascinating detail.
I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams. I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go.
The structure of the book is outstanding. Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later. For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later. The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution.
The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on. You really, really want to know what will happen next. For tips on how to do this, see my post scenes and sequels: how to build tension in your writing.
A few minor flaws
I am Pilgrim is not perfect. The narrative is politically incorrect to a degree verging on parody. Pilgrim and other supposedly sympathetic characters casually dismiss the qualities of one set of people after another – Serbs, Albanians, Russians, Japanese, and Arabs just to start with. The assumption that a female Turkish police officer would be incapable of firing a pistol betrays either startling sexism or ignorance of the trigger-happy nature of the Turkish police. The Afghan sequences of the book have weak patches, occasionally sinking almost to Shantaram-esque levels of boilerplate.
On the whole, though, these are minor quibbles set against the powerful narrative. One may debate to what extent thrillers should attempt political correctness. If you like a good blockbuster thriller, try I am Pilgrim.
If you like fast-paced thrillers, you should try my own Blood Summit, which thriller author John Connolly described as “hugely entertaining”. Click on the pic for a link.
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