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The Camel Club (Hardcover) Hardcover – 2005
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The central issue of scrutiny which Baldacci comments upon focuses on the mutual hypocrisies involving the United States government's War on Terror, and the holy war jihad used to justify the violent actions of Islamic terrorists. As a disclaimer, please take note that Baldacci does not pull any punches here. While the story and characters are fictional, the events that he references from the past and present are real and add a great deal of motivation for the characters, as well as personal moral contemplation for the reader. I'll admit, as a reader I often found it difficult to read The Camel Club at times, not due to any form of literary difficulty, but due to the book forcing me to open my eyes to a far greater picture with no black and white lines. Baldacci isn't taking sides in the matter, after all he has written some very patriotic books in the past. Rather, he's merely demonstrating just how twisted our world truly is and how superficial barriers created through differences on race, language, ideologies and religion can create these significant rifts between different nations and people. It's one thing to craft a compelling thriller set in modern day reality, considering the fact that most readers (myself included) are often seeking escapism from the bore which is every-day life. Yet it's another achievement entirely too deeply galvanize the reader while providing such effective social commentary that truly moves them into deep contemplation. It's a dichotomy that I haven't seen realized so effectively since reading Orson Scott Card's magnum opus Ender's Game, which is an acknowledgement I don't say lightly.
A stark difference from the Baldacci books I've read in the past is that The Camel Club places emphasis on a larger cast of characters as opposed to Baldacci's usual format featuring a single protagonist paired with a smaller cast of supporting characters. I initially had some skepticism to this change in direction, yet Baldacci pulled through by illustrating an excellent cast of characters that included several memorable standouts. The leader of the Camel Club, Oliver Stone is a character wrapped in such a great deal of mystery that you can't help but obsess over his true identity. His unkempt exterior and primitive living arrangement serve as a mask for his astute intellect and set of skills that come as a surprise to even his closest colleagues. The secret service agent Alex Ford demonstrates how doing one's duty to one's country isn't always as simply as it sounds when government bureaucrats and convoluted jurisdiction are constantly interfering with the greater good. I also enjoyed the romance that sparked between him and another character that I won't spoil; it gave the book some extra emotional investment, which is something authors of other technothrillers often struggle with effectively illustrating. The final character I'd like to highlight is one of the antagonists of the book Carter Gray, who to my surprise rose above the stereotypical government bureaucrat/politician archetype of looking to make a career for himself through less than honorable means. He's an impressive morally grey character that helps build upon the aforementioned moral center of the book's social-political commentary. His character essentially carries two burdening questions: how far would you go to protect what you love and when does it cross the ethical line and become something far more sinister? Which leads to an even direr question: can this line even be identified if you're put into this position of responsibility and power? He's a great antagonist to the book who never believes he's anything other than a hero doing what is necessary for the safety of his country and his fellow countrymen. The moral dilemmas that surround his character are extremely thought-provoking and a poignant reminder that doing the right thing isn't always a simple choice between right and wrong. I definitely hope to see Gray return in a sequel.
The last third of the book also needs special attention because of just how enthralling it is. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that what the book is building up as the climax actually serves as the catalyst for cataclysmic events that give the book a far greater sense of scale than you'd initially believe. It's common practice for a book or movie's synopsis to glorify the plot and make it seem far more epic than it can possibly hope to become. Yet in the case of The Camel Club, it actually succeeds and lives up to what it advertises. It concludes with an absolutely phenomenal climax that is equal parts emotional as it is action-packed. Needless to say I was hooked for the finale as the characters seemingly went through hell and the cryptic plot came full circle.
However, the book does have a few minor detriments. The first being that there are moments where the narrative begins to drag, due largely to extended periods of time where emphasis is being placed on minor characters instead of the protagonists. Fortunately, the book is able to overcome this demerit mostly unscathed since the plot is so enthralling. The other issue is that some of the characters feel a tad underdeveloped, particularly Milton and Caleb. They're both likable characters with interesting personalities, yet they don't have the same level of depth or purpose within the story as Oliver and Alex. I hope to see Baldacci develop them more in later installments.
The Camel Club is easily one of my favorite Baldacci novels and the start of a promising series that I plan on revisiting. The majority of characters are very memorable, the plot is exciting and emotional, and the manner in which it portrays its social-political commentary by showcasing the sins of both sides is worthy of envy. It's a book that gives the reader exactly what it advertises and then gives even more. Baldacci has once again proven himself to be the king among the modern technothriller novelists.
The book contributes to the further increase of prejudices in the minds of people against those that are different from themselves even though it appears to convice the reader the other way round.
Going back now to finish the late Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp series. Was hoping Baldacci's work would fill the void left by Flynn's untimely death. Unfortunately, that will not happen.