Friday, January 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Escape Artist" by Brad Meltzer

It's amazing to think that it's been nearly 22 years since Brad Meltzer burst on the scene with his first book, The Tenth Justice. I remember him being quite the wunderkind at the time, and I even went to a book signing at one of those long-defunct bookstore chains, either B. Dalton or Waldenbooks. (Remember those?)

Every single one of his novels since then has made the bestseller list, but somewhere along the way I couldn't keep up with him, so it has been a while since I read one of his books. But his upcoming novel, The Escape Artist, is already getting quite a bit of buzz, so I figured I'd see what the fuss is about. This is a great thriller, full of twists and turns and sensational action, but it also has some great character development and packs an emotional punch.

Jim "Zig" Zigarowski is a mortician. Some call him a genius, because he can repair significant damage to a body, making it possible for families to view their loved one and not have any idea just how badly the body really looked. He spends his days in perhaps the most important funeral home in the country, at Dover Air Force Base, where he is responsible for handling the bodies of American soldiers who died in the line of duty, as well as those injured in catastrophes such as 9/11.

After a military plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness with some important VIPs on board, Zig knows Dover will be getting the bodies. And while the victims include the head of the Library of Congress, it's one particular victim that catches Zig's attention—Sergeant First Class Nola Brown. Nola knew Zig's daughter when they were younger, and saved her from a potentially life-threatening injury one night, but she disappeared shortly thereafter. Zig is determined to do right by Nola—and then he finds out it isn't her body in the coffin shipped to Dover.

So if Nola is alive, what happened to her? And why is everyone ready to believe she is dead? Zig can't stop from digging into the truth, especially when he finds a clue that Nola might have known what was happening that fateful day in Alaska. But the more he investigates, the more he finds himself entangled in a web of conspiracy, crime, violence, and potential scandal, which can be traced back to some of the highest positions in the U.S. government. And the more he digs, the more danger he puts himself in, as well as those around him, because those looking for Nola are always one step ahead.

But Zig also finds that Nola brings trouble wherever she goes. She's not interested in being found, nor is she interested in Zig's help. She doesn't care about the connection they shared—she simply wants to follow the trail that led to the plane crash, wants to understand who was responsible, and what they were into. She's utterly unprepared, however, for just who is involved.

"The deepest wounds—the ones that pierce you to your core—they heal, but they never disappear."

The Escape Artist is a top-notch thriller, but it's also a book about loss, pain, recovery, regret, and the physical and emotional scars we bear. Zig and Nola are fascinating characters, both tremendously stubborn yet vulnerable at the same time, although Nola seems a bit of a sociopath as well. The book shifts between the present and Nola's childhood, to illustrate the events which shaped her attitude and the armor she has built around herself.

There are a lot of characters with nicknames (The Curtain, Houdini, Horatio) to keep straight at times, and I'm still not 100 percent sure that I fully understood the operation that Nola and Zig uncovered. I also felt that the villain went on a bit too long in his dramatic "here's why I did what I did speech," a la the villains in superhero movies. But those were minor irritations, because I just felt the story was fascinating, and Meltzer delivered some fantastic action scenes and crazy twists and turns.

I imagine you'll see this one a lot over the next few months, so be sure to pick it up when it is released in March!

NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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