Mirage, Book 9 is The Oregon Files, is my first taste of Juan Cabrillo in well over a year. During the break between stories, I’ve mostly been consuming The NUMA Files with Kurt Austin, so it took me a bit recall many of The Oregon characters and their distinctive quirks, from Max Hanley to Julia Huxley and the newest recruit, MacD. But from the very first chapter starring these giants of adventure, I was quickly reeled back into their life-and-limb escapades. So much entertainment was promised with that first look into a Siberian escape! but sadly as the novel progressed, the disjointed plot and its resulting flat conclusion made this one of the most upsetting Cussler installments since Trojan Odyssey.
Truthfully, this book began so promising. After Juan Cabrillo finagles his way into a Siberian prison in order to bust out an old friend, he must flee his pursuers through air, snow, and water. While it’s clear the main character can’t die, his narrow escape is true suspense, and the Cussler/Du Brul team evidence just how articulate they can be. When Cabrillo then leaves the Siberian wasteland for the arid Aral Sea and its vast expanse of rusting ships amid sand dunes and ghost towns, I recognized that Cussler had landed his plot in one of the most unique locations on earth. Tossing snipers and a mysterious Great Lakes ship into the mix simply added to the promise of an unstoppable book. Yet that’s just about where everything stopped for Mirage.
From this point on, the plot became so disjointed that it seems as if Cussler and Du Brul wrote two vastly different novels on their own, disagreed on whose was best, and so finally just tossed a few chapters from each into the mix, and then tied them together with some very thin string. While one clear antagonist (a Russian) stands out among the rest, the very fact that others exist make this series of plots a grand departure from Cussler’s norm. There are the evil American military retirees, the disfigured puppet-master without a nationality, the Chinese Navy—all antagonists in their own right, yet coming and going throughout the book as if this were a collection of short stories rather than a novel. While such a plotting concept might mirror the flow of events in real life, I don’t expect real life when I pick up a Cussler novel. The disjointed texture of this book is a major flaw that I imagine is hard for the authors to explain away.
Adding to the downer-nature of this particular installment is the co-authors’ attempt at producing a more average-Joe protagonist out of Juan Cabrillo. Despite their attempts, the mundane details that fill the pages of Mirage do not lend an air of authenticity to the story but rather annoy the reader. Again, we’re reading Clive Cussler not John Steinbeck. These clunky details weigh the book down and make it clear to the conscientious reader that they were added merely to beef up a broken plot that was beyond repair.
It was no surprise to me, by the end of the novel, that the conclusion would be as much of a downer as was the middle, despite this promise at the end of Chapter 25: “Far from vacation, the Oregon and her crew were about to enter the fight of their lives.” Although the crew did get into a close scrape aboard a car-carrier in the South China Sea, and although Juan’s magic missing leg took yet another bullet (as it seems to do in every adventure), the final four chapters of the books are spent mostly in dialogue aboard the Oregon. The fighting they encounter is mild in comparison to everything else they’ve endured over the years, attesting to the probability that both Cussler and Du Brul recognized how worthless this particular attempt was, but were too far beyond their publication deadlines to do anything about it. For me, the silver lining to this whole debacle called “Mirage” is that it proves that Clive Cussler is still only human, though even that’s debatable since most of the blame should most properly be laid at Du Brul’s feet.