by Patrick Lee
Ex-corrupt cop/ex-con Travis Chase, recently released from prison, is hiking through the Alaska wilderness and trying to figure out how to get his life back together when he stumbles across the crash of an unmarked 747. Inside the crash he discovers that everyone on board has been executed, including the First Lady of the United States. A note in her hand sends him in search of the two survivors of the crash, who are being brutally tortured to force them to reveal the location of an object that could lead to the destruction of everyone and everything on Earth.
And thus begins Breach, the first novel in a new thriller series by Patrick Lee. While many thiller novels by such writers as James Rollins, Jeremy Robinson or Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child skirt the edges of science fiction in their novels, Patrick Lee embraces it wholeheartedly. While it is marketed as and starts out as standard thriller fare, make no mistake; this is a science-fiction thriller.
Travis soon rescues Paige Campbell, the last survivor of the crash, and learns what is happening. (Warning: Minor spoiler for the first of the novel.) Paige works for an international government organization known as Tangent. Thirty years ago, an experiment beneath Wyoming opened the “Breach” of the title; an opening to… somewhere. Various artifacts (which they call “entities”) have been coming through the Breach at regular intervals since then. Some of these entities are benign, some are very dangerous and none of them were created by humans.
One of these entities is known as “The Whisper”. The Whisper is a device that knows everything. Literally. It also seems to have the goal of causing as much destruction as possible. This is the object that the bad guys of the novel are after and which Travis and Paige are trying to protect.
The novel becomes a wild, “thrill-a-minute” ride as Travis, Paige and the rest of Tangent try to protect (and later recover) the Whisper from those who would use it to dominate (or destroy) the world. But… how do you fight an enemy who knows what your every move will be even before you do?
I quite enjoyed the novel until very near the end. The action is fast and fun, the main characters (Travis and Paige) are quite well done and the history of Tangent and the Breach is both tantalizing and interesting. And the main question of “how do you fight an enemy who always knows what you are doing” is a good one. There are a few places where the main characters suffer from plot blindness (there is a “hidden” code that should be obvious to any reader that takes the “brightest minds on the planet” hours to figure out at one point) and this top-secret international agency is a bit quick to allow this ex-corrupt cop/ex-con into their innermost circle, but these things tend to happen in novels like this so I let it go.
On the other hand, at the very end of the book things (I felt) went off the rails. Since this involves discussing the end of the book there are obviously some major spoilers here. I’ll continue after the spoiler bird.
I mentioned above that the characters tend to suffer from plot blindness but I started having more problems when the basic premise of the novel started sinking in.
The Whisper is clearly defined as knowing everything. The characters discuss this several times. At one point it is even revealed that The Whisper had known that someone would win the lottery over a decade in advance.
Given this it is obvious (or should be obvious) that everything the characters do would have been anticipated in advance by The Whisper. Which means that everything that happens in the book happens according to The Whisper’s plan, which it set in motion decades before. Nothing the characters do has any effect on the final outcome; they are just following their roles in the plan.
Now, this could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the reader in a book has no effect on the actions of the characters in the book. The characters are as locked into their plot by The Whisper as they are by the author. But the result still seems somewhat unsatisfactory as it seems that everything the characters do in the book is ultimately meaningless.
Of course, given the ending of the book, that was the plan all along.
Major spoiler of the ending here. Last chance to not look.
At the very end of the book Travis learns that The Whisper was created by a human. A human from the future. Himself. The Whisper leads him to the Breach where he gets another “entity”, this one another item from the future. This time it is a note from Paige, to Paige. In it, she tells herself to kill Travis before he murders millions of people.
Yes, the book involves time travel. This immediately makes the plot a mess to follow, but let’s try.
Travis, we are told almost immediately, is an ex-cop/ex-con. Almost as immediately though we start getting hints that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Yes, he was a corrupt cop. Yes, he murdered someone. But he had a reason.
Travis’ parents were leaders of a crime organization. They pushed him into joining the police force and becoming a detective so that he would be their man on the inside; someone who could protect their crime operations. But Travis eventually started to turn away from this life, something that was triggered by a woman who loved him and wanted him to be honest. So, Travis’ parents had her killed. (Yeah, no way that plan could go wrong.) Travis immediately seeks revenge, kills the man who actually killed her and almost kills his parents before a last-second change-of-heart convinces him not to. He then spends 18 years in prison.
Here’s where the time travel kicks in and things get confusing. In the “original” timeline (not the events of the book but told to Travis by The Whisper in the last few pages) Travis gets out of prison and goes to work with his brother developing an artificial intelligence system for video games. Eventually his expertise comes to the attention of Tangent and they hire him to work for them.
Then, sometime in the future, something happens. Travis does something bad enough that Paige sends a message back through time using the Breach to tell herself to kill Travis.
Travis, knowing this was going to (or had?) happened, sent the final product of his artificial intelligence research back in time to before Paige’s letter to herself would arrive. This was, of course, The Whisper. All of the events of the book occurred simply so Travis could be in position to intercept the letter.
And this is what soured me on the book. First, none of the characters ever had any meaningful choice in their actions. We like to think that our heroes become such by overcoming great odds and adversity and triumphing. In this case, everyone, including Travis, was just following the predefined course set out for them by The Whisper. Travis’ “success” wasn’t his; it was The Whisper’s.
Of course, The Whisper was given its instructions by Travis’ future self. Which means that Travis is (will be?) responsible for the literally thousands of deaths that take place during the course of the story.
On the other hand, Paige’s letter to herself says that Travis will somehow be responsible for 20 million deaths at some point, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.
I can’t help but feel that this weakens any further books in the series. Let me use Star Wars for example. If the prequel trilogy had come out first, then we all may have been shocked and dismayed when Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side and becomes Darth Vader. But, since we learned of Darth Vader first it was very hard to be sympathetic to the whiny brat Anakin since we knew his future.
In this case, we know what Travis Chase is capable of. The Whisper knows the future and how to set him (and everyone else) on the path to meet it. Travis’ future at this point looks as set in stone as Anakin Skywalker’s.
Maybe the series is supposed to be about how Travis avoids his own fate. Maybe. His actions in the last page of the book show that he is already keeping secrets from those closest to him. In the meantime though he has, to me anyway, become a character that it is very difficult to feel sympathy for. And that isn’t a good thing when you’re dealing with the first book of a series.