Bantam, 2015, 560 pages
Who is Ashley Bell? From number-one New York Times best-selling author Dean Koontz comes the must-listen thriller of the year, perfect for listeners of dark psychological suspense and modern classics of mystery and adventure. Brilliantly paced, with an exhilarating heroine and a twisting, ingenious storyline, Ashley Bell is a new milestone in literary suspense from the long-acclaimed master.
In all my years of reading, I have never gotten around to a Dean Koontz novel. My impression was that he is a sort of "Stephen King lite." And he apparently really likes making a magical golden retriever a plot device in all of his books.
Ashley Bell basically confirmed my expectations, but it wasn't bad. It's a conspiracy thriller about an adventurous, sensible, intelligent girl named Bibi Blair, the extraordinary daughter of a pair of loving ex-surf-bum parents. Bibi is diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, and given only months to live. She decides otherwise, and finds herself miraculously cured (with the help of a dog that has to be the most clumsy plot device I've ever seen) and set forward on a quest to save a mysterious girl named Ashley Bell.
A lot of the threads of this story don't make sense until midway or late in the book. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that the plot takes a supernatural turn.
This is a story with heart, and while it's got some cackling bad guy villains, it doesn't really get too dark — I think Koontz wanted us to feel like there is a great evil darkness threatening Bibi and her world, but even with a Hitler-obsessed fascist archvillain who raped his own mother, somehow the bad guys never felt much scarier to me than Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Indeed, though this is not a young adult novel, its plot and characters would fit well into the YA genre and it could easily have been labeled as such. Bibi Blair even refers to herself as a "valiant girl," a reference to a beloved children's book series she read as a child, which will take on greater significance during her quest to save Ashley Bell and herself.
Bibi is a little too perfect and too extraordinary. Her perfect and awesome parents, her circle of friends (including a gaggle of boys who have always loved and respected her but known that they weren't good enough for her), and her Navy SEAL boyfriend (yes, really) might provoke eyerolls if she were written by a YA author and not Dean Koontz.
So this novel does indeed tread ground that Stephen King covers, with similar characters and similar plot devices, except that King would actually scare you, disturb you, and make you worry that some of these loveable characters are not going to come out of this intact and not everything will end well, whereas you can tell from the beginning that Koontz pulls his punches.
I liked Ashley Bell enough that I'm willing to read another Koontz novel, but I will turn to Stephen King when I want an honest-to-gosh supernatural thriller with teeth.
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