“We all have a dark side… We wish we could deny it, but we can’t. It’s there…. Yours is a legend called Jason Bourne…”
Since these are books in a series, this review will contain spoilers for The Bourne Identity. If you don’t want to read anything about the first book, you can skip to the bold text near the end for my spoiler-free closing thoughts.
The Bourne Supremacy, by Robert Ludlum
#2 in the Jason Bourne series
Random House, 1986
597 pages (hardcover)
Reenter the shadowy world of Jason Bourne, an expert assassin still plagued by the splintered nightmares of his former life. This time the stakes are higher than ever. For someone else has taken on the Bourne identity — a ruthless killer who must be stopped or the world will pay a devastating price. To succeed, the real Jason Bourne must maneuver through the dangerous labyrinth of international espionage — an exotic world filled with CIA plots, turncoat agents, and ever-shifting alliances — all the while hoping to find the truth behind his haunted memories and the answers to his own fragmented past. This time there are two Bournes — and one must die.
The Bourne Ultimatum, by Robert Ludlum
#3 in the Jason Bourne series
Random House, 1990
611 pages (hardcover)
At a small-town carnival, two men, each mysteriously summoned by telegram, witness a bizarre killing. The telegrams are signed “Jason Bourne.” Only they know Bourne’s true identity and understand that the telegrams are really a message from Bourne’s mortal enemy, Carlos, known also as the Jackal, the world’s deadliest and most elusive terrorist. And furthermore, they know what the Jackal wants: a final confrontation with Bourne. Now David Webb, professor of Oriental studies, husband, and father, must do what he hoped never to do again — assume the terrible identity of Jason Bourne. His plan is simple: to infiltrate the politically and economically omnipotent Medusan group and use himself as bait to lure the cunning Jackal into a deadly trap — a trap from which only one of them will escape.
I first read The Bourne Identity a few years back. Why I didn’t continue the series until now, I don’t know, but I’ve always wanted to. Unfortunately, what I found is that neither of these books are as strong as the original. The main driving force behind that first novel — an amnesiac’s efforts to reconstruct his past and figure out who he really is, all while not getting killed — is missing. Each successive book has its own set of conflicts, but they just aren’t as compelling as the first one.
The Bourne Supremacy has an interesting premise, as the main character is forced to reconcile the man he wants to be with the man he can be… in this situation, has to be. I enjoyed seeing how Ludlum chose to approach this. He starts out as David Webb, but over time, as the character takes on the identity of Jason Bourne, he’s referred to by that name, both by other characters and in the narration. Meanwhile, Marie has her own subplot, much more substantial in this book than in the first. I liked seeing her on her own, using the lessons she’d learned when she and Bourne were on the run in the first book.
The Bourne Ultimatum continues the internal struggle between Webb and Bourne as outside events again threaten his family. This book introduces some new characters and subplots that I connected with, particularly in the early parts of the novel, but it’s all very familiar by this point. I guess a lot of long-running series run this risk. For only being the third book, though, I would have liked a little more to keep it new and fresh. Instead it feels like a rehash of issues explored in the first two.
I also noticed some continuity issues in both of the books. I guess it’s an author’s prerogative if he wants to change things, instead of working within his established framework (Ludlum certainly wasn’t the only one to do this), but it’s still jarring, especially reading the books in quick succession as I did.
Still, that’s a minor quibble compared to the big picture, which is this: what makes the first book great is, by design, an element unique to that book… not unique in the whole of publishing, but within this series. Jason Bourne can continue being roped into these situations, always at odds with himself, but that crucial element — the Identity factor — can’t be recaptured.
So… closing thoughts…
(spoiler-free from here to the end)
Are these books must-reads for those who enjoyed The Bourne Identity? In my opinion, no. I’m not sorry that I finally read them, but neither measured up to my expectations. I may continue the series eventually, out of curiosity to see how a new author handles the material, but I’m not in any hurry to do so.
The Bourne Supremacy:
The Bourne Ultimatum:
Have you read the series? Am I the only one who thinks the first novel is far superior?