Robert McCammon’s new novel, The Providence Rider, is the fourth installment in the Matthew Corbett series that began in 2007. The first two were released by Simon & Schuster imprint, Gallery Books, and the second two from Subterranean Press. I’ve no idea what prompted the change in publisher, but typically such things are a result of underwhelming sales, a change in editor, or the appearance of locusts. I’m sure it was the locusts this time because I can’t imagine books of this quality being anything other than in demand.
The narrative begins in the winter of 1703, with Matthew Corbett haunted by his past encounters with the macabre (see previous books). When an unexplained series of explosions rocks his Manhattan neighborhood, he finds himself forced to confront an unsavory, and altogether criminal, figure from the past. By hook or by crook, Professor Fell will get Matthew to his island lair, where he needs the young problem-solver’s unique skills to further his dreams of a pan-Atlantic crime syndicate.
My use of the term of island lair is curious, isn’t it? I find it calls to mind something like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. While nothing in Providence Rider is quite so silly, there are definite homages to the same devices spoofed by the Mike Myer’s classic. Whether Dr. No, the first James Bond film, or Bruce Lee’s iconic Enter the Dragon, or every G.I. Joe episode ever, the notion of the island lair is a common one. McCammon classes it up a bit:
That thing being the castle of white stone that came into view on the right-hand side perched on the cliff overlooking a turbulent cauldron of Atlantic foam. It was a massive monument to the power of a wallet… and also, possibly, to the power of power itself.
But, no island lair is complete without a cast of minions for the overseer of evil to use to execute his Machiavellian plot. And what suits such a group better than:
…silver placesettings at a polished table that seemed to Matthew as long as a New York block. Above it was a brass chandelier ablaze with candles, as the night had fallen over Fell’s festival, and also spaced along the table where brass candelabras that gave off a lovely light upon the unlovely throng.
Although the chairs never opened to a fiery prison below, the scene did include:
The concealed door in the wall at the far end of the room opened. Sikri emerged, pushing before him something covered up with a brown tarpaulin. There was the noise of rollers on the chessboard floor.
I apologize for the heavy quoting, but it’s done with purpose. First, McCammon’s writing is tremendous. His imagery is top notch, and his metaphors are subtly evocative. He’s also clever, highlighted in the last clause of that first quotation, ‘a lovely light upon the unlovely throng.’ Second, I wanted to make sure I conveyed the conviction that McCammon displays in playing with the evil-villain-island-with-a hero-on-his-own-among-the-enemy trope, and merging it with the historical tones and Dickensian characters.
Finally, I wanted to hint at Providence Rider‘s leisurely pace. Not to say it’s slow, never that, but McCammon always takes his time, setting up each piece with the appropriate descriptions and characterizations that allow every scene to shine to its maximum potential. I would be remiss to say that ‘potential’ is always high. The well worn setup I’ve described leads to some scenes that unfold exactly as expected, and others that unfold with caricature like hyperbole. Despite those limitations, McCammon never leaves anything on the table. He wrings every last ounce of value from each character, moving in and out of them with an omniscient third person narration that perfectly fits the time in which Matthew Corbett’s story would have been considered plain fiction.
It’s my understanding that the previous three novels all riff on different themes and explorations of genre (this is my first Matthew Corbett novel, a fact which detracts not at all from my enjoyment of it). If that’s the case, and I’m going to trust Chuck Wendig on this one, then The Providence Rider is a historical pulp spy thriller pastiche wrapped up in a delightful period appropriate style. With that understanding, Robert McCammon never takes a wrong step. He’s a master at work in the height of his power. Historical fiction, thriller, fantasy, and horror fans will all find themselves enthralled.
You can pre-order The Providence Rider from Subterranean Press in a multitude of different versions, for release in late May. I’m not sure whether it’s going to be released in eBook format (previous novels were). I hope so, because this is a story that deserves to be read.