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Excellent read, but a bit of a paradox overall
on 24 October 2010
I've found it hard to sum up this book, and I'm slightly bothered that I can't rate it higher than 3 stars. Perhaps explaining the problem might be a way into a review...
Well, first, I really enjoyed "The Execution Channel". It was gripping, fun to read, and kept me turning the pages (and up till midnight to finish it). Nothing wrong there. The story has three layers. (1) It's an expertly told thriller, full of spooks, tradecraft and technology. (2) It's a convincing - and disturbing - near future story, set in a world where terrorist outrages have provoked a slew of wars across the Middle East and Asia, with the UK/ USA drawn into ever more dubious tactics and tensions boiling over with France and Russia. This is all troublingly credible, and the most frightening part of the book. (3) Finally, there's a science fiction twist, hinted at, but only really taking off at the very end.
The story unfolds against this triple background, told through the eyes of a bunch of spooks, a sort of Lone Gunman blogger, a team of counter-bloggers employed to sow disinformation and - the main protagonists - James Travis and his daughter Roisin. James is a French agent in the UK; Roisin is a peace activist. Both are drawn credibly and their motivations and actions convince.
Over and above the human characters is the Execution Channel itself, an almost intelligent network selecting and transmitting video of murders and executions worldwide, seemingly to inflame the conflict. This is an ingenious idea, but I don't think it was central enough or explored well enough - certainly not to have the book named after it! Yes, it plays a key role in the plot - once - but unless I'm missing something, no more than that.
However, the real reason I'm wrestling with how to judge the book concerns the ending, which is where the SF deus ex machina comes in. There is what seems set to be a blinding denouement, with layers of spooky bluff, double bluff and information stripped away over a couple of pages that have to be read and read again - reminding me of the best of le Carre, for example The Looking Glass War. However, the final revelation - while hinted at earlier in the (very well done) murky world of the bloggers - comes so far out of the blue that it reads like the ending of a completely different book.
So I'd rate it as something like 4 or 5 stars for most of the book, and 1 or 2 for the ending. Not that it's a bad ending, I think it would be a very good ending for a different book. That puts the overall rating down, but, as I said above, I wouldn't want to suggest anything other than this being excellent and a great read.