By the Rivers of Babylon

20. By the Rivers of Babylon by Nelson De Mille. 432 p. Published 1978. Republished June 1990.

This author was recommended to me by the friend who brought The Cleaner to my attention. I chose to read By the Rivers of Babylon because it was the earliest published work of his at my library.

This novel opens in France, where a bomb has been hidden aboard a newly constructed Concorde jetliner bound for service in El Al. We jump to a year later in Israel, where preparations for the departure of a peace talk delegation is underway. Every risk, contingency, and threat has been foreseen and prepared for. Or so they think. Two Concordes take off, heading for NYC, with a guard of F-14s beside it. Suddenly, a terrorists’ Lear Jet swings in and stuns the entire country with a daring mid-air hijacking. Suddenly one of the delegation’s jetliners makes a break for freedom and is disintegrated by the terrorists. The F-14s are forced to retreat and the terrorists and remaining members of the delegation disappear into the desert.

Soon after, the Concorde is forced to put down in Iraq near the ancient fortress of Babylon. But sudden disabordination by the pilot lurches the plane from terrorist control, and the delegation sees a chance to avoid captivity. Grounded in the ruins of Babylon and surrounded by vastly overpowering forces, the remaining members of the delegation and its security detail dig in. Beseiged by terrorist attacks, hazardous conditions, and internal power struggles, the survivors grapple with concepts of peace, violence, fate, and the essence of human nature.

I’ll admit De Mille’s novel is compelling. I read the entire book in about 6 hours. His plot is convincing enough to capture the reader and by page 360 I had no idea where the remaining pages were going to take me. And despite the fact that this novel is 30 years old, it fits within a very possible future Middle East.

However, there was one overpowering downside to By the Rivers of Babylon, and that was its characters. Many of them seemed somewhat contrived and only three – Hausner, Brin, and Baxter – came alive.  These three are the coldest emotionally, yet the easiest for the reader to grasp. I don’t believe that this was do to a lack of skill on De Mille’s part, but rather his own innability to connect to the emotions and sometimes zealot-like nature he imbued into the other characters. Furthermore, the plot shifts between character-driven and situational depending on which characters are in focus.

Now, I purposely chose some of De Mille’s ealier work because I wanted to judge a contrast with his later work. That being said, this was an enjoyable read, and not simply because the heroes (and anti-heroes) succeed and villians fail, but because the story is well developed and artfully paced.

Rating: 3 out of 5


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