Illuminated is the first book from Matt Bronleewe. This guy is amazing. He helped found the band Jars of Clay. He currently writes songs and is a very sought-after producer by artists such as such as Michael W. Smith, international pop singer Natalie Imbruglia and Heroes star Hayden Panettiere. To think that he has added a new career in writing is pretty remarkable. And an added bonus: Matt composed a soundtrack for the book that is available for free download at his website. How cool is that?
Illuminated tells the story of book specialist August Adams returning from a successful trip acquiring a rare copy of a Gutenberg Bible. Little does he know that he holds the key to a secret spanning hundreds of years, and there are people dedicated to getting that secret - at any cost. All August holds dear is at stake in this thriller.
I admire Matt a lot, reading his posts on Infuze and seeing the type of culture-impacting work he's done. His new novel has several strengths to it. The plotting is very suspenseful. You can't end a chapter without catching your breath and wondering where he's going next. The plot was intriguing, with nice insights into history. As mentioned in marketing for the book, it can appeal to those who liked The DaVinci Code or the movie National Treasure. It was hard to tell at times who the protaganists could trust, and this kept me constantly guessing. Overall it is an easy read.
There were some weaknesses as well - many of which I think are the mark of a first novel and should clear up down the road. The writing sometimes didn't hold up the circumstances of a scene. Whenever a book tackles a historical topic, it is hard not to have a passage of "info dump", where the narrative slows to catch us up on context. This book is not exempt, although it is not near the problem this was in DaVinci Code. The ending seemed to wrap up quickly with some contrived situations. Finally, sometimes a character does some things that are highly improbable for their situation (an eight year old boy with an incredible amount of fortitude for his age.)
There is one issue in this book that makes me want to discuss it further. It is pertinent to bring it up in a review, and I'm going to spin it off into a discussion on this blog. The issue is violence, specifically the level of violence in Christian fiction. In Illuminated, it is a suspense with secret orders, chases, and narrow escapes. There has to be danger and violence to make it realistic. Yet there is a level of violence and gore in a couple of sections that seem extreme. Body parts are carted around. A rival agent is tortured, killed, and sawed apart to dissolve in acid. Another aspect that made me uncomfortable was violence around Charlie, the 8 year old son of August. He wasn't harmed, but his frequent association with it made me cringe.
Overall, I think Matt Bronleewe has crafted a unique book for the CBA world, a book with some flaws of style that should improve with experience, and some plot choices that may push some boundaries in the Christian fiction field. It wasn't my favorite read this year, but it is not a bad thriller for fans of those books. People with a queasy factor may want to give it a pass.
Like I said, this book made me ponder the issue of violence within Christian fiction. If you're interested, please join me for subsequent posts discussing the topic.