James Herbert’s worst novel is THE SPEAR. An overblown international thriller about a private detective taking on Nazis which is preposterous at every level (If memory serves, it has a sentient tank). PORTENT is nowhere near as bad as THE SPEAR, but as I trudged through its 400 pages it became clear it shares a lot of the same flaws.
From reading both, it’s obvious that trips aboard really scuttled James Herbert as a writer. Here he manages to conjure foreign locales with all the depth of a holiday brochure. Making it seem like the author had been to these places, but for two hours sight-seeing in between duty-free shopping. There’s zero depth to the portrayal, instead – in the various depictions of poor non-white people around the world – there is the unmistakable whiff of casual racism.
So little in the way of meaningful world-building does Herbert achieve that when a grand apocalyptic moment happens late in the novel – with so many cities and countries torn apart – I found myself turning the pages in a bored stupor, which is surely not the effect the narrative is going for.
The plot in this globetrotting muddle of an adventure?
To be frank, by the time we got to the perfunctory, rushed ending I had kind of lost my interest in it. But there’s all kinds of natural disasters and a sense that they’re all connected and it takes a grizzled scientist to work out what’s going on, and to stop an evil witch from New Orleans who’s thrown into the mix for some reason.
When I was a teen I can remember reading Clive Cussler. Now maybe I’m doing a disservice to nautical Clive, but for me he became the benchmark of this kind of uninspiring thriller.
Clive Cussler writing is glamorous locales, a maverick hero and the pretense that it’s all so interesting and unique, when really it’s a set of clichés thrown together. No matter what kind of quirks you give him, no matter what terrible backstory he has, your maverick hero is always going to be a cliché no matter what. While if you can’t make your glamorous locations breathe, they just feel little more than matte painted backdrops.
As he proves here, and certainly proved when he hit a really low bar in THE SPEAR, James Herbert just wasn’t cut out for that type of book. He was at his best writing dark cynical gory tales set in London and the Home Counties. Once he gets on a plane, once he leaves our small scepetred isle that really is his natural stamping ground, then it all goes wrong and you end up with a book as painfully middling as PORTENT.