Chris Kuzneski writes phenomenally researched books, but he has trouble writing phenomenally written books. Each of his novels gives off a sense that he could be a less formulaic Dan Brown, but the quality of his writing and plotting drags him down every time. Kuzneski always finds a handful of genuinely interesting tidbits to share about his chosen cities and subject matter—in the case of The Prophecy, it’s Pittsburgh and Nostradamus, respectively—but he almost never knows when to quit, and he drowns the narrative in every bit of information he’s managed to glean in the process of researching the book.
The Prophecy is the latest Kuzneski novel to feature Jonathon Payne and David Jones, two ex-Special Forces squadmates who have continued their partnership out in the civilian world, and have a bad habit of stumbling across centuries-old mysteries that require their wits and brawn to solve. Frankly, their banter can be terrible, and Kuzneski’s attempts to play off their racial differences for humor—Payne is white, Jones is black—is almost always embarrassing.
But Kuzneski comes so close to writing compelling thrillers that it’s hard not to keep picking up his books. His subsidiary characters are compelling, and many of them make return appearances in this book, particularly robust linguistic genius Petr Ulster. One of his new creations—a sassy 28-year-old with an odd connection to the case Payne and Jones are trying to solve—will hopefully join this stable of recurring characters, as she’s easily Kuzneski’s most vibrant, fun creation in a while.
But the ultimate problem with The Prophecy is the same problem with every Kuzneski novel: It gets bogged down in its own side trips. The other flaws would be more forgivable if the pacing moved like a rocket, but it often takes dozens of pages for much of anything to happen, and Kuzneski spends whole sections of the book pontificating on such plot-irrelevant subjects as which Philadelphia restaurant makes the best cheesesteak. None of this is bad, per se, since it plays to Kuzneski’s strengths as a researcher, but it’s a continual reminder of just how little story the book actually has. Payne and Jones meet a woman with a mysterious letter, and owning it ends her life. More than a hundred pages later, they’re still moseying about, kinda-sorta thinking about figuring out what the mysterious quatrain in the letter might mean. The Prophecy is 400 pages long, but could easily be reduced to 150.
It’s entirely possible that the book meanders so much because it’s only the first part of a larger story; the novel ends on what seems like a cliffhanger, though the main conflicts have all been resolved. But it’s unclear whether Kuzneski intends to continue this story in another book, or he’s just ducking the central promise of his novel, the one right there in the title. The Prophecy comes about as close to hitting the mark as Kuzneski ever does, but it still aims far too wide.