Falling is a brand-new thriller and debut novel by T.J. Nelson. Set on a commercial airliner that’s been taken hostage, this is a well-written novel. It’s as polished as novels by journeyman writers. If it wasn’t being marketed so intensely as a debut novel by a former airline attendant, I’d have never guessed it was a first novel. Falling feels like it was written by a journeyman novelist. There’s not much fat in this story; exposition and dialogue forward the story while maintaining the crisp narrative flow.
Right off the bat, we’re dropped into an intense scene. There’s no waiting to build the action. The protagonist, Bill, is on board an airliner. There’s been considerable damage to the plane, with a large hole in the fuselage. The cabin has completely depressurized and members of the cabin crew are screaming at him to help. It’s just the introduction, but it’s gripping. It sets the tone for the rest of the book with marvelous alacrity.
And then we’re into the meat of the story. Bill the pilot’s family is taken hostage by Kurdish terrorists. Which is an interesting twist. It’s not about religious fervor. And it’s not revenge in the classic sense of seeking vengeance against an individual, though there is an element of revenge in the story. The terrorists demand Bill crash the plane or they will murder his family.
Newman was a flight attendant while writing her book and the book feels like it. The crew feel trained and with much more agency than I ever really imagined would be the case. I guess that just goes to show how little I know about the commercial aviation industry. The last time I flew was 1996 and that was only a couple of flights; I didn’t spend any time thinking about the stewards or flight crew (Though, I did spend time wondering if I was going to survive the turbulence just outside Denver International Airport).
One of the flight attendants has a nephew in the FBI. That’s how the ground is alerted to the situation. However, this particular special agent of the FBI is on thin ice with his superiors. He’s a bit of a loose cannon and made a bad judgement call on a previous case. Now, he’s one misfiled expense report away from being fired. It’s a trope, but Nelson uses it well. The character feels sympathetic, which is really all I ask of any character. If there’s enough depth in the characterization of somebody to get me to care if he or she gets fired or hurt or killed, that’s a writer fulfilling their first job; to make me care.
And I do care about what happens to the characters. I even care about what happens to the terrorists because they’re not just “bad guys.” They have an agenda based on a simple idea that’s sympathetic. The antagonists in this novel are doing the wrong thing. They’re justification for doing the wrong thing is, itself, wrong. At the same time, their backstory is heartbreaking as well as being based in actual historical events. Connecting to the history of US relations with the Kurds in northern Iraq is an inspired move by Newman. What they’re doing is wrong, but that doesn’t make the characters who are performing the act less compelling.
And there’s something of a cautionary tale woven through the thriller that I’m not sure Newman intended. Coinciding with the planned demobilization of US forces in Afghanistan, Newman low-key reminds readers of the perils of abandoning a country and the vulnerable groups of people who’ve come to depend on our presence to keep the peace.
Full disclosure, I had the ARC a couple of months in advance of the release, but I kept procrastinating reading it. And then I procrastinated writing the review, because I kept running out of time during the weekends. Honestly, I just kept making excuses because, ultimately, I’m lazy when I get done with my day job. And that’s a crime.
This is a good book. It’s fast-paced and while it has some thriller-style tropes that are recognizable, but they’re very well done. There are enough red herrings to keep the story from being predictable.