Rereading favourites: Robert Ludlum’s ‘The Icarus Agenda’

Off we go with the first post.

Seeing how I’m now past 20, I felt it was about time I started rereading some old favourites. What to expect then? There’ll certainly be Tolkien, there’ll be Ludlum (beginning: here) and there’ll be Clancy. Obviously, I’ll write about Atlas Shrugged (but then I consider that an ongoing process rather than rereading) and there’ll be others (maybe even Harry Potter!). Let’s begin with The Icarus Agenda, though.

About three years ago (summer of ’05) I bought a couple of Ludlum’s novels. I had read the Bourne trilogy the summer before (2004) and liked it, so when it was time to do some reading in English for exam purposes, I decided to go with Ludlum. I’ll talk about some of the others later but The Icarus Agenda was my favourite.

About a week ago, I received my new copy of the book (the old one had fallen apart) and went through it rather quickly (finished Sunday morning at 1:40 a.m.). I still like it, I certainly got more out of it than I did last time and I also saw more of its flaws than I did last time.

Let’s begin with the good stuff. According to Wikipedia, it was written in 1988 (seems plausible) and is the sequel to The Chancellor Manuscript (obviously, considering how Inver Brass plays a major role). The plot is summed up rather quickly: American congressman goes to Oman to singlehandedly solve a hostage crisis, comes back successful, is secretly put into the spotlight of the political arena and hunted by enemies. In the end, he wins, gets the girl and loses some friends.

There, tons of spoilers but that’s not the point (it’ll get much worse, trust me!). I like the main character – Evan Kendrick – a lot. Not entirely sure whether he’s still appropriate today but I’m quite confident that he is. A bit more thoughtfulness towards the Middle East wouldn’t hurt and even though it mostly stays at the surface, the book’s rather refreshing insofar as it isn’t explicitly anti-Arab (it’s rather quite pro-Arab, in fact). I enjoy that. Obviously, there’s probably not too many Ahmats left (a pro-American, young sultan) but on the other hand Bin Laden isn’t so different from the religious nutjobs in the book.

Khalela is an acceptable character as well. Ignoring that she was raped as a student (seems to be a thing with Ludlum, having his main heroine raped, if I remember another one correctly (probably the next one I’ll reread – The Sigma Protocol)) and that comes across as a rather cheap ploy to make her character seem more complex, she still offers great insights. It’s probably mostly the hopeless romantic in me (usually plays a rather small role next to the cynic) but I find the relationship between her and Kendrick very exciting and extremely, well, pleasant. A strong woman and a strong man – eventually, I guess, it represents what I consider a proper relationship. It’s exothermic – I came up with another example when thinking about it (Tucker Max says there’s three kinds of people: those that take from the table, those that come out about even and those that add to the table – in a relationship you’d want the last kind of person as your partner) but this one’s better. They go out and come back exhausted and being together doesn’t take additional energy but rather gives back to both of them. A non-zero-sum game, a win-win situation. A fortress against an unpleasant world.

Manny, of course, is just plain delightful. Very interesting, very funny. There’s quite a few more interesting characters throughout the book (it’s actually filled with them) – MJ, the Inver Brass crew, Ahmat, Bobbie – the list goes on and even though the book has more than 800 pages (at least my version does), you know there’s much more that could’ve been said about them.

Now, after a lots of praise, let’s get to the parts that I didn’t like too much. Characters: The evil guys don’t get enough depth. Their motivation basically boils down to “money”. That’s about as unexciting and simplistic as you can get – I guess Ludlum used all his powder on the Arab terrorists (who, consequently, come out much more multi-layered). The worst offense in terms of character, though, is two-fold: first, Evan Kendrick’s conversion to willing pawn needs more work, and secondly – more importantly, for me personally, Gerald Bryce is an absolutely shitty character. He plays one of the major, albeit very silent, roles in the book and gets basically zero motivation. Nada. It hurts and it shows. Why would he do what he does? An additional offender in this regard is Milos – why not give us his background? Which country, what happened, how’d he get out? IIRC, there’s some link to The Chancellor Manuscript but I can’t exactly remember it and it wasn’t that deep (his father played the same role, I think). Not enough – the basic problem is lack of convincing motivation.

Finally, let’s get to the ugly stuff. It’s mostly in “Book Three”. Why the hell would there be a new Mahdi? There’s no point and it acts entirely counter to the other development – arms dealers being killed and less arms being delievered. One’s supposed to be hopeful, the other’s supposed to highlight how fucked up the situation still is. If you wanted to get that done, you’d have to do it the exact opposite way around – let the plan against the arms dealer not work out and show some “rational” Arab kill the new Mahdi.

The whole arms dealer part is extremely stupid anyway. It feels kinda like the air raid on Tokyo in Pearl Harbor – the story works fairly well without it (very well, actually) and there’re plenty of possibilities to bring the story to a satisfying end. Have Khalela and Kendrick get married, have a baby, Kendrick being elected Vice President and getting some hopeful deal with Ahmat and an Israeli. Something like that. This just doesn’t work and feels terribly forced. One more thing: the whole scene on the island – yeah, that could’ve used some work.

The bottom line: I still very much enjoyed this book. It makes for an exciting read and especially the first part feels very well thought out and finely executed. Leave the Inver Brass stuff out and it makes for a great book on its own. The second part isn’t quite as strong and rests mainly on the shoulders of the Evan-Khalela relationship (as far as I’m concerned, that is) plus some other good characters (Manny, MJ etc). The third part is just plain ugly (then again it’s only 40+ pages). All in all well worth the time (and you’d better be prepared to spend a couple of hours unable to put the book down once you’ve proceeded halfway through it).

4/5

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