Since writing this review, I’ve learned the author has gone back and cut 6,000 words from the book. While I haven’t seen the revised work, I expect it’s now a tighter, leaner read than when I reviewed it. I hope you will please consider that as you read this review. ~ Gary Henry, April 16, 2012.
That said, here is my honest opinion of John Paul Davis’ The Templar Agenda, a conspiracy-thriller which I finished reading Sunday morning.
Characters: The story revolves around Mike Frei, a U.S.-born member of the Vatican’s storied Swiss Guards military unit; and Gabrielle Leoni, daughter of a billionaire banker with Vatican ties, to whom Mike is assigned as a bodyguard, following the father’s murder.
John does a nice job with these two. He could have easily made Mike into your typical superman-type hero, fighting off a zillion assassins at once, but he keeps it real. Gabrielle is a little closer to spoiled-snooty-rich-girl who discovers the charms of an honest working man. Although she and Mike inevitably develop a relationship, Gabrielle comes off in many ways as a real and independent character, as strong a protagonist as Mike.
We’re also treated to a colorful panoply of bankers, Cardinals, military and law-enforcement men, legendary historical figures and more in this wonderfully well-researched epic.
The Pontiff even ducks his head in for a sec.
Plot: When billionaire banker Al Leoni is murdered, leaving the family-owned bank in the hands of his daughter Gabrielle, the Vatican Police assign Mike as her bodyguard. That’s because the Vatican has a huge chunk of cash in the bank. Even though the Vatican Police and other capable agencies are on the case, headstrong Gabrielle tries to get to the bottom of it herself. Her university training in history; and her uncle, an esteemed professor of history, stand her in good stead as she gets ever closer to the unbelievable truth about the granddaddy of all conspiracies. Of course, the closer she gets, the less the bad guys like it. Even with martial-arts-trained Mike guarding her, she — well, everyone — takes their lumps.
Setting: The story takes us across Europe and the Atlantic — from Rome to Zurich, from Washington to New England, and more. Frightening subterranean tunnels to the glittering salons of the ultra-rich to the hallowed vaulted halls of the Vatican are all on the “agenda.”
I really enjoyed John’s place descriptions:
The young man paused, taking a moment to scan the ancient Ponte Sant’Angelo in front of him. The bridge, usually heaving with Romans, tourists and lined with street vendors, was deserted, its ornate features hidden by early morning mist rising from the Tiber.
Directly in front of him the Castel Sant’Angelo stood prevalently, its thick fortified walls looming up out of the gray air. Through the mist he could just make out the silhouette of the famous bronze angel atop the summit, its sword held aloft and its sightless eyes fixed on the bridge.
John writes like he’s been there.
What I thought could’ve been done better: The story could take some editing for wordiness. In one scene, Mike is being briefed, and a higher-up asks him to sit —
Complying with the invitation, Mike sat down opposite the oberst and removed his beret, passing it through his fingers as if it were a tea towel.
With the excess words removed:
Mike sat opposite the oberst and removed his beret, passing it through his fingers like a tea towel.
If Mike sat, then obviously he complied with the invitation to sit, which makes the first four words of the sentence redundant.
An instance here and there is no big deal. But too much unnecessary language weighs down the story.
Awkward phrasing is another common problem. In this scene, a character is looking around a subway car:
Next seat on a black woman was sitting opposite two balding white men dressed badly but didn’t know it.
The sentence should read:
Next seat on, a black woman sat opposite two balding white men who were dressed badly, although they didn’t know it.
These are things an editor or proofreader would’ve (or should’ve) caught. There are enough of them throughout the story, in my opinion, to do some damage to John’s fine tale.
What I thought was good: I liked the grand scope of the book, and the multiple locations. One of my pet peeves is that authors take you to interesting places, but don’t describe them. No problem here.
At one point the story takes Gabrielle, Mike and Gabrielle’s Uncle Henry to the vaults of a ruined castle in Scotland:
Although the jagged ruins looked grim and sombre below the dreary sky, the red brick structure that remained was not without its charm. To Mike the design was like something out of a fairytale.
Dialogue is good too — it fairly crackles in places, especially in scenes of give and take between the conspirators.
But the unquestioned star of the book, and what really makes it worth reading, in my humble opinion, is the research that went into it. It is unquestionably a work of fiction, but John has done enough homework so that I felt, if nothing else, I got a good look into some real places and some real history.
The Vatican Library and librarian, for instance (and how many of us readers and writers don’t like libraries?):
He was unlike any librarian in the world. Over 75,000 manuscripts lay hidden within the incredible labyrinth in the company of over 1.1 million printed books, more than any other library in existence in the West. Every day scholars throughout the world would write to the the library, requesting a brief glimpse into the fountain of knowledge and in theory every request had to be approved by him.
These kinds of details, and John is generous with them, give The Templar Agenda a nice edge of reality, crucial for a conspiracy story.
Overall: So who writes a perfect book? The Templar Agenda is a grand far-reaching tale with a wild premise nicely set in an interesting and ornate reality. It could use the brisk comb of a good editor, but the story is vital, vibrant, meaty, and all there in plenty of glorious detail.
Good job, John!
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