There have been changes over the years in the Gregor Demarkian series, and not all of them have been improvements, but it's still a darn good series, with intricate characters and plots that deftly mingle the real world and the fictional. I am the same person I was twenty years ago, even though I'm a bit slower and fatter - but a much better saxophone player! - and my friends still like me; I believe book series and their authors deserve at least as much opportunity to change.
So what are some of the changes? One of the good ones: Bennis' flakiness and moodiness are not entertaining any more, and Gregor is beginning to realize that he may even deserve someone who is not a smoking nervous wreck; Bennis's schtick was beginning to wear on me. One of the bad ones: Father Tibor has lost most of his personality, becoming little more than a cardboard foil for Gregor. But overall, most of the characters in the series are aging well, and growing up in one way or another.
If you were to read this book without having read the rest of the series, those changes in ongoing personalities wouldn't matter to you; you'd be concerned with the plot and the ideas. So let me give you the overarching idea of this volume:
Noblesse oblige, both from those who have wealth and those who have brilliant minds, is both required and a mistake at the same time. Anyone who has gifts is obliged to try to help others, and everyone who does so attempt will be mistaken in their attempts to discern the difference between needs and wants, and in their guesses as to what the recipients of their help really think about it. The metaphor of no man being an island is used in the book, and if I may drag that metaphor out a bit, while it's true, sometimes the bridges that connect us are shaky, and many times we should have used an alternate route to get to another person, and we don't find it out until there's an smoking 18-car pileup on the road between us.
As other reviewers have noted, conservative radio blowhards come in for a great deal of bashing in this book. But so do leftist academics, and just about everyone in between. Partly, the author seems to be asking, through her characters, will you please all stop and THINK harder instead of automatically taking any party line or any opinion you are handed as doctrine, whether it be from a political party or from a religion? At the same time, though, she has a character who is brilliant and thinks everything through faster than most people could start - and he still makes mistakes; thinking everything through is not enough if you don't ever do a reality check by *participating* in a reality-based community of some sort, with other people who are not identical to yourself. And that, in turn, means not automatically identifying yourself with one group or another all the time.
Haddam reinforces this point through some of her secondary characters - Ed the lawyer, for example, who is gay, but has had to reinvent what kind of gay persona he is, because he doesn't fit into one of the gay stereotypes that even the gay community tends to categorize itself into. And of course, Sister Maria Beata, who has changed from a shark corporate lawyer to an uncommon extern sister of a contemplative and cloistered order of nuns, leaping from one community with a very rigid set of expected behaviors and thoughts to another with an even stranger set; her thoughts about what she expected, and what she got, out of this self-imposed complete change of view, are fascinating.
This isn't the first time that Haddam has made use of nuns/former nuns, and it isn't the first time that she has made them sympathetic and interesting characters, either, even though overall Haddam's attitude toward religion in general and organized Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has been negative. Haddam has, in the past, portrayed atheists far more sympathetically and far more seriously than most contemporary fiction writers, including mentioning the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a past book; in this book, she mentions CSICOP, an organization that, while not specifically anti-religion, finds itself often taking on religion in its efforts to keep harmful superstitions and scams based on superstition and religion from gaining headway.
All that about details, and I've said nothing about the plot! Well, other reviews have pretty well covered that; my take on it is that the play-fair rules of the genre, which include "follow the money," are played fair here. We have a decent plot, with a credible resolution, and not one that winds up depending on freakish motivations or the twisted serial killers that some authors rely on. I am really tired of some contemporary authors' dependence on incredible recurring super-villains or ghastly mutants, or evil plots that in the real world couldn't be kept secret like that for more than 10 seconds. I like the realism of the mistakes that both good and bad characters make in Haddam's books, and I like that most of her characters have both good and bad traits.
In short: the plot's not the most important thing here, but it's OK; the political and philosophical ideas will annoy everyone at some point, but are worth it. The only people who won't like this volume in the series, assuming you already like the series, are those who are so rigidly committed to their own limited viewpoints that they get upset at hearing them analyzed in any fashion.