REVIEW: To Kill the President by Sam Bourne

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2.5/5 stars

As much as I hate to write it, To Kill the President was a letdown. Maybe it was because of unreasonably high expectations that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but I was left thinking that this book could have been so much more.

Let me start with the good, of which–make no mistake–there is a lot. The author’s expertise of the current political climate shines through at every turn, which makes sense given Jonathan Freedland’s background in journalism as The Guardian’s Washington correspondent. His D.C. is rather too close to House of Cards’s nest of vipers for me to feel comfortable reading it, but that’s exactly the thing–To Kill the President isn’t meant to be a comfortable read. I had to put it down every few chapters and look at something lighter thanks to how disoriented the “fiction” made me. When I got through the last ~100 pages in one sitting yesterday evening, I felt positively sick. An overreaction to fiction, maybe, but this novel hits you a lot harder than a Fahrenheit 451 or even a Handmaid’s Tale because of how close it runs to our world. Most of the time I can’t even call it a satire, seeing as we’re in an age where real life could put The Onion out of business.

The novel’s commentary on the times rings true enough to elicit a wince. Case in point:

This repeated response from the President’s critics–the wry, world-weary, humorous take–was beginning to grate. Like that woman had said on the radio the other day, We’re laughing all the way to a totalitarian state. And if all the meme-makers and cast of Saturday Night Live only knew what she knew, they’d understand that this was no joke. The man was prepared to blow up the planet, for Christ’s sake. Go ahead, make a GIF of that.

Freedland’s decision not to name said President (he’s referred to by his title or a whole range of less complimentary epithets the whole time) means that the above could pass off in an editorial without too much trouble. There are a multitude of other quotes in the same vein, mocking/exposing Trump, Bannon, and the alt-right. And yes, Trump is exactly who To Kill the President is about. It has all the subtlety of a jackhammer drilling away a couple feet from your ear; it could not be laid out more clearly.

At some point, the heavy-handedness becomes a crutch. Take away the references to Twitter and the tax returns and the infamous eeeeeemails (in this case, an unsecured phone line) and the novel becomes, at best, a clichéd thriller derivative of the many that came before it. Minor spoiler: I found the “victim chapters” where we’re introduced to a character and they suffer a contrived death by assassination at the end of the chapter, complete with a “the last thing he saw was…” punchline conforming to every convention of the trope particularly grating. Especially as there were quite a few of them, and they served little apparent purpose until the end.

Speaking of the ending, I wasn’t a fan of it at all. Up to literally the 50th chapter out of 52, less than ten pages away from the end of the book, there is no resolution in sight–the mystery has mostly been solved, and Costello confronts the Big Bad…and they just talk. She leaves the meeting seemingly defeated, as if nothing has happened, leaving me wondering if that’s it and this is going to be one of those dark endings. But wait! In the last two chapters, the biggest Deus ex Machina of all time materialises, allowing for a halfway proper conclusion. Halfway proper is infinitely better than the non-conclusion that would have arisen without the introduction of this new, contrived plot element, but it still feels seriously weak, as if the author couldn’t think of any other way to get out of this mess and just brought in the god out of the machine. That’s my biggest complaint about the ending, but there are in general a few things that I don’t feel are properly justified: The whole deal with Costello seeing highly classified assassination plans on Richard’s phone and getting away with it just seemed too convenient. First of all, is Richard so important that McNamara needs him to off those targets? And if he is, how would he not realise that Maggie had spied on those plans along with the rest of his chat records, and take the appropriate measures to make sure that she could never put the pieces together and expose them?

None of those, however, led to the moment when I realised that I was no longer enjoying the book, at least not as much as I wished to. That moment came with the awareness that for all her admirable traits, I didn’t find Maggie Costello a compelling lead. For much of the first half of the book, I was looking forward to the Kassian chapters, dreading the Costello ones. Then, when the Kassian chapters ended, it was Garcia’s chapters that I anticipated. Yes, Costello is a little boring, but by the end of the book what makes her worse than just a vanilla investigator is the *facepalm* feeling that she’s messed everything up. And she has, in a way–despite being a competent, highly skilled White House operative, she’s soooort of responsible for the world nearly ending. I won’t go into details because of spoilers, but if you’ve read the book, you’d understand what I mean. Characterisation of other characters isn’t much stronger, although given that Sean Spicer is very much alive and walking around today, I can’t slam them for being unrealistic.

If you’re going to read To Kill the President, don’t do it expecting much satisfaction from watching an assassination plot against Trump unfold. The result isn’t particularly satisfying on any front, because hint: there are no winners. (None that you’d want to root for, anyway.) That much the book has gotten right.t

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