1.5 stars rounded up. It was, in parts, "okay".
First and foremost, thank FUCK that is over. I started reading this on April 23 and I am just now, today, June 5, finished reading it. Considering I finished the other books in ten days or less, I gotta say my pace here is telling.
This book is a padded mess of inconsequential bullshit, and I would be the worst kind of fanboy if I ignored the hundreds of pages of filler here and five-starred this train wreck of a novel. But I think the WHY of the matter is the most interesting subject here, so let's discuss why I feel that Greg Iles stuffed this book to bursting with filler in order to create (or force) some kind of legacy.
Many years ago (2011, I believe), Greg Iles was in a car accident in which he almost died. He lost a leg and had a long recovery ahead of him. Before the accident, he'd written almost to completion a book called Unwritten Laws, which can still be found on Goodreads. The novel looked to be a direct follow-up of Iles's novel The Devil's Punchbowl because he mentions at the end of PUNCHBOWL that Cage's story will continue in 2011. Great. Wonderful.
Unfortunately for Iles fans, we will never get to read Unwritten Laws.
So what the fuck happened to Unwritten Laws? My theory is this: Greg Iles, fresh off almost dying, decided to chop the book up into three novels and pad them with some insane JFK subplot. If you were to strip the JFK nonsense from Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree you'd have a very tight, albeit lengthy literary thriller. I can only imagine that Mississippi Blood will lend further evidence to my theory, should I ever choose to read it. The JFK stuff is nothing but expositional dumps that are a fucking BORE to read. Had I not read and loved the previous four books in this series, I would have tossed this pile of overstuffed nothing out the window.
But why would Iles do such a thing? Because near-death experiences make people do weird shit. Look at Stephen King. After getting ran over in 1999, and the long recovery he suffered, we got the utterly garbage Dreamcatcher. But we also got the final three Dark Tower books. Nothing lights a fire under your ass like the realization your ass won't be around forever. So Iles came back to Unwritten Laws, butchered it, and added a bunch of JFK conspiracy theory nonsense in order to create, in his words, his "magnum opus".
Spoiler alert: It's never a good idea for an author to go into a project expecting it to be the greatest achievement of their career. I don't care how good you are, it never works out well. You end up coming off as a try-hard.
And Greg Iles tried too hard. This storyline did not need the JFK subplot. There is some terrific shit in this book, but it's all overshadowed by Greg Iles's attempts to create a literary legacy. You can pinpoint every scene that is tacked on because they feel exactly like that--tacked on. Every scene that doesn't mention JFK is superbly written, while every chapter that mentions the assassination feels like someone else wrote them. Someone drastically less talented than Iles has proved himself to be with previous books. The plot becomes so absurd that even the characters start commenting on it. Toward the end of the novel, Penn Cage says "Unbelievable" in response to another asinine and obviously forced plot twist. This is because, deep down, Iles knew how badly he was fucking up, but he wanted so much for it to work. So much, in fact, that the desperation drips from the page. "Please, believe this, dear reader! PLEASE!"
Iles drones on and on trying to make his theory plausible, but it never takes hold. By the end of the book, I was defeated and dejected. I'm seriously contemplating not reading the final book. I'm so goddamned disappointed. Because there is a good story in here. Somewhere.
FInally, we lose some cherished fan favorites, but their passing is tainted by the thriller-filler bullshit of the JFK subplot. I wasn't remotely affected by their passing, even though the scenes were well written. I remember how hard I took a major character's death in The Quiet Game and I can't help but feel like Iles failed the characters in this book. They deserved so much better than to be bookended by an insane subplot and cheesy thriller elements.
Why, man? Why?
Sometimes, authors are their own worst enemy. That's why.
In summation: No doubt the weakest book in the series, and definitely the worst Greg Iles book I've read. Nowhere near his usually high quality. A perfect example of an artist wanting too badly to be taken seriously when they were already fine the way they were. Super disappointed and unsure if I'll carry on to complete the series.
Final Judgment: NOTICE ME, SENPAI!
Wow. This was one of the most intense books I've ever read.
I have come to believe that the United States was founded in atrocity, and that we bear a scar that can never be healed without a full reckoning of the horror of slavery, Jim Crow, the Klan, lynchings, and the tremendous injustices that have been perpetrated on the black community. As Faulkner said:
"The past is never dead. It isn't even past."
Corruption has two meanings. In the first, it refers to government corruption - where the government operates in a way that is dishonest, typically to the benefit of the wealthy or well-placed. In the second, it refers to decay - the corruption of a corpse as it decomposes. In this trilogy, Iles is exploring both kinds of corruption, and how the first festers in such a way that it ultimately causes the entire society to decay.
If I have one complaint about this book, it is the entire subplot related to the Kennedy assassination. There is so much power in this narrative about racial injustice and terrorism and its effect on both its victims, its adversaries and its perpetrators that I feel like that entire tangent is unnecessary and weakens the force of the book. As Nietsche said:
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
I'm not sure that there will be a single character left who hasn't descended into the abyss by the time this trilogy concludes.
I ended up with about 12 hours of reading - I got in some good solid reading in the morning, and finished Who Buries the Dead by C.S. Harris - I was at about 60% at the beginning of RAT.
After that, I rolled my extra-rolls and figured out my reading strategy. I ended up starting Natchez Burning by Greg Iles, which is a very long book (816 pages) and made it to 61% (540 pages), which burned up (pun intended, lol) most of the day. I also took a break and read about 10% of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan.
I got sidetracked in the middle of the day by yard work, however. It's been an incredibly wet and rainy spring here in the PNW, so we haven't been able to get outside and start the spring clean up of our property. My house sits on an acre, and about 1/3 of the acre is wooded with huge old pine trees, so we get a lot of downed limbs and other forest debris every winter. It's a big project! We also don't have any yard debris service, so everything needs to be burned before the end of the burn season.
Yesterday was dry, and the sun even came out for a while, so we decided to burn while the burning was good (burning seems to have emerged as thematically relevant). I dragged an adirondack chair up to our fire ring and sat out and read and tended the fire.
We also just bought a new tool! We bought a battery operated chain saw that works a treat for lopping off limbs and cutting things up. I am here to tell you, fellow readers and individuals of the allegedly more delicate sex, that there is nothing more empowering than wielding a chainsaw. I went mad with power, trimming trees and dragging limbs down to the fire pit to be cut up and burned. It was awesome, and made me feel like a fucking goddess wreaking vengeance on winter.
So, yeah, that got in the way of reading. A bit.