My rating: ♦
Of the five books in Clavell’s Asian Saga that I have now read (not counting this one, I have read Shogun, Noble House, Tai-Pan and King Rat) Whirlwind has been the only disappointment, and what a disappointment! When one invests one’s time into reading a 1,270 page doorstop of a book, one does so with the hope that, upon reading the last page, one does not hurl said doorstop across the room exclaiming “well that sucked!”
As I have noted in my earlier review of King Rat , Clavell’s work is all Orientalist fantasy, and has to be read as such, otherwise it will come off as hopelessly colonialist, and fawningly imperialistic (no, seriously, this guy makes Rudyard Kipling look like Mark Twain when it comes to empire). That said, even approaching Whirlwind with such a caveat in mind doesn’t help. The book is just plain bad, the plot is convoluted, the characters are unsympathetic, the action drags (which is a problem when you exceed 1,000 pages) and there are a lot of loose ends that never get resolved.
To provide a brief synopsis, Whirlwind continues Clavell’s saga of the Struan’s corporation, a group of Swashbuckling China traders that bridge between the worlds of the West and the East. In this case we are introduced to the Struan’s offshoot S-G Helicopters, headed by Andy Gallavan, who we met earlier in Noble House (don’t worry too much about names here folks, we’re dealing with a cast of thousands, with a family tree more complex than anything Tolkien dreamed up). Gallavan & co. have the bad luck of operating a Helicopter company servicing oil rigs in Iran circa 1979, and the book picks up on the day the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns from exile in France. The early stages of the Islamic Revolution with its attendant bloodshed forms the backdrop of the book, and provides the primary crisis. Will Gallavan be able to extract his people and his helicopters from the increasing violence and instability of Iran? Will star-crossed Western and Iranian lovers be able to stay together, or will the tidal forces of religion and revolution tear them apart? Finally, how will the various shadowy factions contending for power in the vacuum following the fall of the Shah affect these characters as they struggle to survive? Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Indeed, Whirlwind has all the elements of a brilliant historical thriller, which it promptly fails to deliver.
As I am generally a fan of Clavell, allow me to avoid entirely crapping on him. This book would appear to suffer somewhat from “author dies before finishing the series” syndrome. While Whirlwind was not Clavell’s final book (that would be Gai-Jin, which I have not yet read) he did have several more books planned before his untimely death, and it is likely that several of the threads left unraveled at the end of Whirlwind would have been revisited later. Clavell also does a few things well in Whirlwind. First, he manages to accurately convey the crushing, claustrophobic sense of being trapped felt by his characters as they find themselves caught in an increasingly violent and unstable situation. Second, he manages to provide a good overview of just how convoluted, complicated and confusing things are in a society undergoing revolution, unfortunately this accurate depiction makes Whirlwind’s plot almost impossible to follow without a flowchart. Finally, Clavell does a good job of depicting the failure of contemporary groups to fully appreciate the Machiavellian genius of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Characters regularly voice opinions that Khomeini or his regime will be short-lived, felled either by his age, an internal coup or an external attack and yet Khomeini’s followers, despite their stereotypical depiction as fanatics are seen to regularly out think and out maneuver their opponents. While the Islamic Republic the Ayatollah founded has changed and evolved somewhat from his original design, it remains a going concern in 2017, something many of the characters in this book would have found shocking in 1979.
That said, there is a great deal wrong with this book. First the plot, or should I say plots. Clavell tends to be a master of the complex, intertwined plots. However, in this book, his skills fail him. There are just too many threads, Clavell simultaneously attempts to write a geo-political thriller, a spy novel, a romance and an adventure. Unfortunately, in attempting to service all of these plots at once, the whole thing falls flat. The geo-politics become dry and boring, the spy plot seems out of place, the romance becomes frankly annoying, and the adventure is choppy, as the structure of the novel doesn’t provide it with any continuity, and leaves many key parts to happen off stage.
Then there are the characters. Clavell’s books often include a “cast of thousands” (ok maybe tens), but there are usually a few key characters who anchor the book and whose characters are well fleshed out (Anjin-san, Mariko and Toranaga in Shogun, Ian Dunross in Noble House, Dirk Struan in Tai-Pan or Philip Marlowe in King Rat). However, Whirlwind seems more like an ensemble piece, without any real standout characters. The characters Clavell does attempt to elevate, such as Tom Lochart, Duncan McIver, the Mullah Hussain or Sharzad Bakravan either fail to connect with the reader, or are ultimately deeply unsympathetic. In fact, the deaths of two “main” characters in a completely stupid manner around page 1,170 elicited more relief from me than sympathy. (Indeed, I haven’t met such an unsympathetic cast of characters since I forced my way through Atlas Shrugged.)
Put simply, this is not Clavell’s best work.