Review: Albatross by J. M. Erickson

AlbatrossBefore turning his hand to Sci-fi, J. M. Erickson, the author of Future Prometheus, wrote a series of spy thriller novels, the Birds Of Flight series. Albatross is the first book of that series. In this book we meet Alexander Burns, a former special-ops agent who has been set up by a colleague. Burns’ helicopter is shot down by “friendly fire.” In the accident intended to kill him, Burns loses his memory. With the help of a kind and competent therapist, he regains (some of) his memory, only to discover that some very powerful people are as interested as he is in what he remembers—and more than willing to kill Burns and anyone close to him once they get the information they need. In his attempt to figure out what’s going on, Burns acquires a group of friends who become like family, and together they put together a complex plan to gain the leverage they need to protect themselves. The plan and how they attempt to pull it off is the meat of the story, but the gem at the center of it is the love and devotion that develops among the members of this adhoc family.

While the concept is entertaining, the first quarter of the book is extremely confusing. The point of view changes frequently, with little guidance for the reader. It can be several sentences into a new POV before it is clear which character’s head you are in. And there are a lot of characters to keep up with. However, once the basic characters have been established and put in place in the story, it becomes much easier to follow the action.

The language is awkward and the plot a bit clunky. For example, it is never quite clear why the people who are after Burns, and all his friends as well, shifted from wanting to keep him alive (presumably to learn what he knew about some security violations) to wanting to kill him and everyone who might have had any contact with him. However, once things are underway (and getting truly underway takes up most of the first half of the book), these kinds of details cease to matter. For what Erickson has done here is to write a spy thriller that is far more concerned with the relationships between the characters than with either plot or action. This may be why I found the many, many unbelievable aspects of the plot more troubling than usual for this type of work. I wanted the plot to be as carefully rendered as the characters.

While the story itself would, I think, make a good movie, there is really not enough here for a novel. And what is here is poorly constructed, with layers of flashbacks that, even with date tags to guide the reader (“Four Years, Six Months Earlier”), require too much mental calculation to keep up with what’s going on when. There are also a few continuity problems, again forcing the reader to look back to check that she didn’t miss something.

Erickson’s skill is obviously in his understanding and portrayal of his characters and his exploration of their relationships and moral dilemmas. It seems to me that Erickson is an author in search of a genre. I would suggest that he choose literary fiction and stick with what he does well—developing and exploring the depths of human beings, the suffering, the moral choices, and the love for one another that makes them what they are.

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