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The previous two Bourne novels, both written by Eric Van Lustbader have been reasonable enough affairs, although not a patch on the original novels by Robert Ludlum. Over the course of two books, Van Lustbader has set about simplifying Ludlum's dense, labyrinthine plots and making significant changes to Bourne's character. He has systematically ignored some of the timelines Ludlum set up, and in doing so, has divided fans. On the one hand, the simplified plots make for a faster paced thriller and easier read; on the other, there is evidence that Bourne is starting to lose all the characteristics that distinguished him from fellow fictional spies.
With the Bourne Sanction, Van Lustbader has finally finished remaking Bourne in his own image. Virtually all the characters created by Ludlum (save Bourne himself) have been killed off over the course of the last few books or otherwise taken out of Bourne's life. Their positions have been usurped by characters created by Van Lustbader. Even where the odd character has survived the cull, they now have almost nothing in common with how they were originally portrayed in Ludlum's original two books.
Sadly, this reduces the book to the level of a fairly generic thriller. In the Bourne Sanction, Bourne is out to stop a potential terrorist attack on a major American city. At the same time, elements within CI (the government agency with which Bourne has previously worked) view Bourne as a rogue element and are looking to kill him and as if that wasn't enough, a killer as deadly and as damaged as Bourne himself is pursuing him.
There's nothing particularly new about this plot - either in generic thriller terms or in terms of the Bourne books themselves. Indeed, Van Lustbader's previous two stabs at the character have contained many of these elements. The Bourne Sanction feels like an exercise in recycling plot elements and plagiarising himself. You know it's time to worry when an author starts to do that!
True, the book is quicker paced and easier to follow. There still the betrayals, double-crossings and unlikely alliances we have come to expect, but these are not as frequent or so numerous that it becomes difficult to work out who is currently allied with whom.
The stripping down of the plot essentially boils down to a one-on-one scrap between Bourne and super-assassin Arkadin - a man whose skills match Bourne's own. This makes the book a more personal affair and makes it more immediately accessible than some of the convoluted plots of previous efforts. True, there are clunky comparisons made to hammer home how similar the two men are (Bourne is a man who cannot remember his past; Arkadin is a man desperate to forget his), but this can be overlooked. It does, however, make the book very similar to the very first Bourne book (penned by Ludlum) and when you compared with that, The Bourne Sanction comes up way short.
On the plus side, Van Lustbader's writing style has improved, making this effort more readable. Some of his previous writing has been rather laboured with long chapters, drawn out events full of densely packed text and too many descriptions or historical facts. All these served to slow the pace down making what should be exciting plotlines rather pedestrian at times. With The Bourne Sanction, Van Lustbader finally seems to have accepted that he is not being paid by the word and cut out some of the unnecessary verbiage. Chapters are much shorter, with regular breaks in the text (allowing you to stop reading at convenient points) and the descriptive detail has been minimised. Whilst it is still a fairly large book (at just over 600 pages) it is far more digestible.
In fairness, Van Lustbader has also been helped in this regard by his publisher. Previous books in the series have been typeset in a relatively small font which has contributed to the feeling of dense text. With the Bourne Sanction, the publisher has finally realised that cramming hundreds of words onto a single page is not necessarily a good thing. This is not something I would normally mention, but it actually had a significant impact on the readability of this book, in comparison with the previous two.
At the end of the day, though, you can't get away from the fact that this has simply reduced the Bourne book to the level of a generic thriller. Over the course of three books, Van Lustbader has systematically removed everything that made Jason Bourne uniquely Jason Bourne. By stripping away those elements he has turned Jason Bourne into yet another Bourne wannabe. It's not a bad book (and certainly a lot better than those which are to follow in the series); it's just a mediocre one.
The Bourne Sanction
Eric Van Lustbader
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011