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Onyx reviews: The Last Patriot by Brad Thor

The Last Patriot is the seventh novel featuring Scot Horvath, a former navy SEAL who worked for Homeland Security until U.S. President Rutledge released a group of detainees from Guantanamo Bay against Horvath's counsel. Disillusioned by Rutledge's actions, Horvath hung up his covert operative hat and is on vacation with his girlfriend Tracy when the book opens.

By the greatest of coincidences, he and Tracy, a former Navy demolitions specialist disfigured during an assassination attempt, are sitting at an outdoor café in Paris when suspicious behavior around a parked car catches his attention. Operating on years of intuition, Horvath tackles the intended victim of a car bomb and saves his life. Just when he thought he was out, they drag him back in. Suddenly, he is involved in a race for a rare book with global implications. 

The object of the chase is a first edition copy of Don Quixote in which Thomas Jefferson allegedly hid clues to the location of an important document—the final revelation (or sura) of the angel Gabriel to the prophet Mohammed, the apocryphal last chapter of the Koran, missing since it was first written down nearly 1500 years ago.

The Koran is the collected revelation of Mohammed. Believers say that it is a perfect document, directly recording the Word of God. Any contradictions among the suras are settled by the policy of abrogation. Later verses take precedence over earlier ones. This final revelation, then, which supposedly advocates harmony with people of other religions, would negate any of the earlier texts used as justification for jihad. Publication of this document would instantly put an end to Islamic extremism and the world would suddenly become a much more peaceful place.

This is the shaky framework on which Thor builds the novel. Horvath is the all-American hero, as resourceful as MacGyver, as indestructible as Jason Bourne. Once he starts piecing together what he's gotten himself into, he makes his peace with the president and essentially takes over the quest.

His adversaries are a group of Muslim extremists who will do anything to keep the final revelation from coming to light. Their point man is Matthew Dodd, a former CIA assassin who faked his death, converted to Islam, took the name Majd al-Din and became a hitman for Islamic extremists. Dodd is infinitely resourceful and virtually unbeatable, ahead of the game at every step. The only thing that prevents him from succeeding in his mission is the fact that his handlers insist on sending messages. It's not enough for them to kill a person; the assassination has to be accompanied by a big explosion that draws attention to the cause. The motivation for Dodd's defection is vague, as is an about-face that takes place later in the book.

The American characters believe that extremists are infiltrating the country, intending to topple the government using the Constitution and existing laws. The author, through his characters, suggests that, while all Muslims aren't terrorists, all terrorists, without exception, are Muslims. The book mixes in enough real history (the Paris riots from a few years ago, for example) to blur the line between reality and fabrication.

The Last Patriot seems carefully crafted to exploit anti-Islamic sentiment in the post-9/11 world. The author is quick to remind readers that Cervantes spent time in a Muslim prison (without mentioning that Don Quixote is generally sympathetic in its portrayal the world of Islam), and that America's first war waged on foreign soil was against Muslims from the Barbary Coast in the late 18th century.

Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. Minister to France at the time. During his negotiations with the pirates who were extorting ships transiting the North African coast, he came into possession of the Don Quixote first edition and, according to legend, the final revelation. He supposedly thought he and John Adams could use the threat of discrediting their religion as a negotiating tool against the ambassador to Tripoli.

Brad Thor appears to be trying to cross the high-tech espionage thriller of Robert Ludlum with the treasure-hunt conspiracy novels of Dan Brown. Thor has clearly done his research into weaponry and gadgetry, but technology doesn't replace storytelling. Thor has problems maintaining point of view within scenes, and resorts to "told characterization" rather than using actions to allow readers to learn about the characters. He also relies heavily on improbable coincidence. Every time Horvath and his colleagues are about to accomplish something important, readers can be assured that Dodd will figure out what's about to happen and show up at the eleventh hour to create a conflict or a setback. It also seems like Thor can't figure out how to fit Horvath's girlfriend into the fray, so he concocts a ploy to take her out of the action. Her presence isn't missed.

Late in the game, the book kicks into puzzle-solving mode a la National Treasure, but a nagging question hangs over the plot as it proceeds to the climax. Horvath believes Islamic extremism is the greatest threat to the world in general and to the US in particular. How can he continue to fight terrorism in another book if he finds and exposes the sura? Since Thor postulates this as a world-altering event, where would he go from there?

The distinction between being anti-Islamist and anti-Islam is difficult to discern at times. Thor has reportedly received death threats because of this book's implication that the Koran is a flawed work of men rather than perfect divine revelation. In interviews he has taken a moral high ground—someone has to be brave enough to tell the truth in the face of political correctness, he says—but it feels like a gimmick to cause controversy and heighten awareness...of this book. Challenging religious belief is always controversial, as Brown discovered with The Da Vinci Code. It's a little like raising the threat of the Red Menace during the Cold War—an easy target.

The book stumbles to a conclusion without really answering the question implicitly posed by the title. Who is the last patriot? Perhaps it's meant to bookend the previous novel, The First Commandment, but there are many patriots in this novel, all determined to save the world—and America—from its supposed greatest threat.

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