It has been 10 years since Terry Hayes wrote I Am Pilgrim. The 624-page yarn, which pitted a crack spy against an Islamic terrorist aiming to unleash smallpox on the world, was a blockbuster hit. For many it was the thriller of the decade. A follow-up was announced at the time, but since then, amid rumors of re-writes, the publication date has been repeatedly postponed. At last, however, here is The Year of the Locust.
One could perhaps read the title as a nod to the insect’s habit of burying itself for years before it emerges. So has Hayes used the time well? Has he, in the words of Harry Carpenter about Muhammad Ali, “won the title back at 32”? The answer is yes, but it’s a points verdict rather than a knockout. For much of what is another very chunky book there is no sign of ring rust. That’s in part because the plot is almost a clone of its compellingly conceived predecessor — crack spy, jihadi villain, bioweapon — albeit it is not a straight sequel.
In place of I Am Pilgrim’s “Rider of the Blue” we have “rider on the storm” Kane — real name Ridley Walker — a CIA expert in infiltrating hostile countries such as Russia. When a courier for an Isis-like group called the Army of the Pure offers to reveal details of the attack they are planning, Walker is sent to meet him in the parched badlands spanning Pakistan and Iran.
Within a few pages you are reminded how capably Hayes, the screenwriter of films such as Mad Max 2, sketches the canvas of remote Kiplingesque locales through which Walker and his ponies trot in the dark. Indeed, he conveys the escapist, not to say the outright preposterous, with more plausibility than he does the glimpses we get of Walker’s domestic life. Then again, we accept that heroes in thrillers are often ciphers.
The plot is almost a clone of its compellingly conceived predecessor—crack spy, jihadi villain, bioweapon.
However, one of I Am Pilgrim’s strengths was the relative understanding afforded to the motivation of its adversary, the Saracen. Likewise, in The Year of the Locust Hayes tells much of it from the perspective of the Army’s ruthless military leader, Abu Muslim al-Tundra, whose back bears a giant tattoo of a locust, that biblical symbol of destruction.
When reading the manuscript his publishers must have been fingering the fattest of cigars in happy anticipation of a hit. Forsythian reportage — the ballistic stopping distance of water, say, or the composition of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes? Tick. A terrorist headed for Russia’s space-mining operation in Kazakhstan, searching for an instrument for his vengeance? Tick, if a little hesitantly.
For it’s at this point, about two thirds in, that Hayes pivots — and one assumes his editor has spent all this time trying to talk him out of doing this. If you love Terminator, The Hunt for Red October, Planet of the Apes and (brace yourself) time travel, if you can handle a contemporary spy story morphing into a Covid-influenced post-apocalyptic redemption tale, then this is the book for you. Otherwise, for many readers this will be the most Marmite, shark-jumping moment since the end of the latest Bond film. My view is that Hayes has just built up enough credit, that his writing has just enough alchemy to it, to carry us through the 100 pages of this fever dream until Walker gets back on track for a showdown.
So much of The Year of the Locust is worth the wait — there’s an assassination subplot in Turkey that in other hands would have sufficed for a separate novel — that one can overlook some other visible weaknesses. These include a dependency on coincidence. Overall, however, this is an often captivating, mass-market adventure story that’s mostly more treat than trick. Just watch out for the zombies.
Terry Hayes’s The Year of the Locust is out now in the U.K. from Bantam and out in the U.S. on February 6, 2024, from Atria
James Owen is the author of Great Events: 200 Years of History as It Happened