Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent reading: Dark Site by Patrick Lee

I think Patrick Lee has been writing just about the best thrillers out there. He has two trilogies complete now: The Breach series and The Sam Dryden series.

The former is a real no-kidding trilogy with an overall story arc. It is fantastic — not wholly flawless, but fantastic. My only two problems with it were: suspension of disbelief issues; and really-she-has-to-get-rescued-AGAIN? issues. But if you want a thriller with the most amazing plot twists, you cannot do better. Especially if you like uber-competent protagonists.

The latter is not really a trilogy. The three books are each so separate that they might as well not bother having the same main character, except I guess having each of them feature Dryden prevents the author from having to establish three different protagonists as totally badass, so that’s probably a plus.

The three Sam Dryden books are Runner, Signal, and now Dark Site, which is the one that came out last year and I only just realized it was out and picked it up.

And it’s good. But, sorry, it’s the least good of any of Lee’s books.

Listen, if you have made your reputation with AMAZING plot twists, then that sets you up for a fall, because if you don’t pull that off in a book, the reader is probably going to notice. This is that book.

Here is the description:

On an otherwise unexceptional morning, Sam Dryden finds himself the target of a carefully planned abduction by a prepared, trained attacker. Dryden, however—a former Special Forces operative—manages to overcome his assailant, learning in the process that a woman named Danica Ellis is also being targeted. Desperate to find out what is going on, Sam Dryden races to her location, arriving just in time to save her. But the mystery only deepens. Dryden and Ellis have nothing in common, don’t recognize each other, and there’s no reason for either of them to be the object of such lethal scrutiny. The only clue is a heavily redacted, official-looking document given to Danica by her stepfather before the attack.

Dryden immediately recognizes it as a “scrub file,” a record of what a subject knew before their memories were chemically destroyed. The redacted document refers to witnesses and to a secret military site in Ashland, Iowa in 1989. Both Dryden and Danica Ellis lived in Ashland in 1989, when they were twelve years old, though neither of them has any memory of the town or of each other.

Dark Site interweaves two stories: the present day, when Dryden and Danica try to elude the forces that are after them, and the past in Ashland, Iowa, when both were children, making a discovery that would forever change their lives.

This is all perfectly fine. So the ultimate question is: What happened in that town when those kids were twelve? And, can we stop it from happening again? We’ve got a situation where a new and terrifying secret weapon was created; it was too scary to be developed and deployed; now somebody’s got control of it and this is a Situation.

Only … anybody who has been watching SF shows and/or reading SF novels for any length of time is going to think, “You know, it sure sounds to me like this super-scary secret weapon is probaby XXXXXXXX. Except would Patrick Lee do something that cliched?” Or maybe I mean horror. Or both, actually. I can think of SF and horror novels and movies and tv shows where this particular type of plot element was deployed. I would name specific authors and shows except that would constitute providing a direct spoiler, which I don’t want to do.

But basically, the answer to the reader’s suspicion is: yes it is and yes he would. In fact, Lee actually tones down this plot element to such an extent that it’s hard to see why everyone is making such a total fuss about the weapon. Well, it’s not clear to the characters how toned-down it is, I guess. But the reader is probably going to say, “Sure glad it’s not worse!” because in a ton of books and shows, it IS worse.

Anyway Dark Site is a fine book in many ways, I guess, but this crucial plot element is completely predictable and not that alarming (comparatively speaking) and that’s a real shame.

Best element: we do see Sam Dryden as a kid, and it’s really interesting to see the traits that eventually led him to become such a badass guy already developing when he was twelve. Basically he can assess situations fast, determine the best potential solution to a horrifyingly dangerous situation, and instantly commit to that solution. Very impressive as an adult, but perhaps even more impressive as a kid. The female lead is handled well too, but as is typical for Lee’s books, the greatest focus is on the male lead.

I hope Lee is working on something else, and I’ll be right there for anything he writes, but I’ll be hoping he knocks my socks off with his next one the way he usually has in the past rather than not quite pulling that off.

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