The Columbus Affair, Steve Berry's latest novel, is an overwritten, tedious adventure, weighed down by ponderous historical details to justify a weak storyline. There is little excitement (save for a great deal of gratuitous and excessive violence) poorly developed characters, an almost unbelievable premise concerning Columbus, and an ending that is a major letdown as a payoff for the reader.
The writing style poses other problems as well. The 419-page novel consists of many short paragraphs consisting of a word or two, intended, one can assume, to add an element of urgency to the writing. Unfortunately, the effect is so overdone that it quickly loses its power to move the story along. The novel also contains numerous uses of pronouns with no specific reference, making it difficult to know who is speaking; some of the pronouns refer to speakers in previous paragraphs, slowing down the narrative as the reader has to decide who is saying what at any particular moment.
There are numerous other grammatical issues; spelling, and syntax errors which cry out for a detail-oriented editor to proofread the work. There are also the conspicuous sentence fragments, a trend in modern writing, which is really just an excuse for laziness. Unfortunately, Mr. Berry has achieved a bestselling author status, much as a Tom Clancy or James Patterson, and may believe that he doesn't need an editor to review his work; after all, he novels must be good because many people read them. Because of his commercial success as a writer, Mr. Berry should serve as a role model for other writers by working to create a literate work of fiction. When he doesn't, as has been evident in his much of his recent work, he must let his publisher take control of the work and make it the best available product.
There is also the frustrating use of italics to separate past exposition and narrative and dialogue from the present. Since much of his book uses flashbacks, Mr. Berry's use of italics text tends to slow the action; this may, though, be an editorial decision.
The plot is the most challenging element of the book, since Mr. Berry postulates that Columbus was a Jew who sailed to the Caribbean. He did so, not in search of treasure, but in search of a safe haven for persecuted Jews and to hide a treasure which once was housed in the Second Temple of Solomon, until the correct Levite will come to find it and restore it in a future Third Temple. All of this is contrary to the thousands of scholarly efforts to establish Columbus's identity and the reasons for his voyages. This twist is, of course, Mr. Berry's privilege as a novelist. The problem arises when he cites only a few sources to support his view that Columbus was Jewish; adding more might increase the credibility of his fictional claims. Mr. Berry does defends his position by writing in his end-of-novel notes that there is no concrete evidence concerning Columbus' background or if, indeed, he did sail to the New World. As Mr. Berry suggests, Columbus' Jewish navigator, a converso (a Jew forced under threat of the Inquisition to convert to Catholicism) might have assumed Columbus' name and identity and sailed to the New World.
Beyond the storyline is the problem of the characters who are underdeveloped and, for the most part, unsympathetically drawn. Tom Sagan, the hero, for want of a better word, is a disgraced journalist who has rejected his Jewish heritage. Zachariah Simon, the villain, is a ruthless, militant Jewish billionaire searching for the lost treasure as part of a scheme to start a war which would lead to Israel's survival and dominance in the Middle East. Caught between the two ends of the action-spectrum is Alle, Tom Sagan's daughter, who comes off as a spoiled, superficial brat of a college student who fanatically affirms her Jewish heritage. Alle hates her father for betraying her mother, disgracing himself as a journalist, and abandoning her. Curiously, the father and daughter manage to reconcile in 3 pages near the end of the novel, in a contrived scene of melodramatic actions and puerile dialogue.
The secondary characters include a variety of pragmatic politicians, hired thugs, and killers who are little more than crudely drawn stereotypes. Among the major characters, the only one who appears to be sympathetic is Bene Rowe, a Jamaican criminal who controls prostitution, drugs, and other illegal activities in Jamaica, while finding time to run a company producing Jamaican Mountain Blue coffee. He also happens to have a pack of trained Cuban bloodhounds that savage his enemies. It is curious how such a ruthless character comes to be somewhat sympathetic, especially toward the end as he attempts to protect the ultimate targets of the treasure seekers on Jamaica.
The premise of the book--the search for sacred items stolen from the Second Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem--is fascinating, as is their possible return in a Third Temple. Unfortunately, the power of those artifacts and what they mean to Israel and Jews does not come across in the novel. Instead, we have several individuals who generally lie to, betray and attack each other in their search for the items, but seldom deal with the inherent power and value of the pieces. After a while, the litany of attacks, killings, lies and deceits becomes numbing, and the goal is diminished. At the end, when we expect a genuine uplifting of emotional energy--and a high degree of reverence--with the finding of the artifacts, the reader feels cheated. While Tom and Elle Sagan are permitted to see the treasure, they are not allowed by Mr. Berry to share their emotional highs with the readers; perhaps Mr. Berry did not understand the importance of the items. Indiana Jones, which this novel mirrors in many ways, did.
Aside from an overextended scene inside a mountain in Jamaica where the treasures are hidden, and glaring factual errors concerning the depth of the water through which the characters must track, the novel slides downward to a forced conclusion. The final chapters neatly tie up the storyline, but only through talk between the head of the Magellan Billet and the soon-to-be Prime Minister of Israel. The reader is not permitted to see what happens to Tom Sagan and his daughter in Jamaica, after they locate the treasure; instead, we are only told about it. Mr. Berry describes how dogs attack and kill; yet he seems unable to describe more positive emotional moments.
Mr. Berry is the author of several exciting novels such as The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Templar Legacy, to name a few. He has a large following that enjoys his Cotton Malone adventures. This stand-alone novel, though, does not have the excitement of the early works. Even though the Malone adventures became increasingly more outrageous, they did offer a high degree of excitement. The Columbus Affair pales in comparison, being a plodding adventure tale bouncing from America to Vienna to Jamaica and points in between, bogged down by too much historical detail, and too little passion for the subject.