Better than Lagercrantz, worse than Stieg...
Stieg Larsson's death on November 9, 2004, left a hard-to-fill vacuum in the Swedish crime fiction canon and what followed his untimely demise was a conflict soaked in bitterness and accusations between Stieg's soulmate Eva Gabrielsson and the family of the late editor of the infamous political magazine Expo whose members retained the rights of the renowned Millenium saga. Larsson completed three full novels and had begun to write the fourth one when he died due to a severe heart attack, in a series that was originally planned to be completed in 10 installments. Thus, there was a vacancy that was filled by David Lagercrantz, an author mostly known in Sweden for his biography of the football player Zlatan Ibrahimović, who was assigned to the task of writing three more novels (#4,#5,#6) by the publishing house Norstedts. The announcement was made in December 2013 and the new novel was titled The Girl in the Spider's Web, eventually published in August 2015 (UK). It should be noted that Gabrielsson, Stieg's life partner for three decades, harshly criticized Lagercrantz's project as the latter didn't use any of Larsson's notes, something that was deemed profoundly offensive. Lagercrantz walked a literary tightrope as he attempted to infuse his own style into a well-established recipe, and the result made many think that the Millenium series won't ever acquire the glory and prestige of the Larsson's era.
Two more novels were signed by Lagercrantz in the following years (The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, The Girl Who Lived Twice) that further solidified his unique approach to the story and characters and there is still major controversy regarding how respectful the author should have been towards the initial trilogy that set the standards for the saga as a whole. In November 2021, the publishing house Polaris announced that they acquired the rights to the Millennium series from Larsson's estate and will release three new books in the series, all written by the Swedish crime writer Karin Smirnoff. The third in order, writer of Millenium novels, has stated that "The Millennium books are classics in their genre, where the combination of unforgettable characters and the strong political and societal engagement still fascinates readers. I will continue to build on Stieg Larsson's core themes, such as violence, abuse of power, and contemporary political currents." As a consequence, I was fervently hopeful that the third would turn out to be the charm, even though I haven't read any of Smirnoff's previous works. I have to admit that I was not thoroughly satisfied by The Girl in the Eagle's Talons for reasons that I will explain later in my review, nevertheless I found it to be a far cry compared to the previous novels by Lagercrantz, featuring a dense plot and a good pacing but, sadly, being deficient in characterization and most importantly the outlining of the two iconic characters of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.
The story sets off with both Mikael and Lisbeth taking a long trip to Gasskas, a godforsaken little town in the northern parts of Sweden, each for his own reasons. Blomkvist is visiting his daughter, Pernille, who is about to get married to a local municipal bigwig, Henry Salo. The former investigative journalist is not at his best moment as his precious "child", the Millenium magazine has recently printed its last issue and what now remains is a podcast, a medium that Mikael rightfully distrusts. When he meets his soon-to-be son-in-law, some of his journalistic instincts come to the surface as Salo is a shady local politician who is mixed up in an awful lot of businesses, always aiming to achieve more and upgrade his financial situation as well as his status. Lisbeth travels to Gasskas as her niece, Svalla, the daughter of her arch-enemy and half-brother Ronald Niedermann, has been left all alone in the world after her mother's disappearance and her grandmother's death. The antisocial hacker is appointed as Svalla's guardian, a role that she couldn't resent more, as it is completely at odds with her independent spirit. However, as she gets to know better the 13-year-old girl, the two of them begin to forge a sincere bond and Lisbeth starts to feel obligated to protect Svalla.
As far as the wider plot context is concerned, there is an immensely ambitious project brewing in Gasskas where a vast park of wind turbines will be built, guaranteeing the community's wellbeing for the decades to come. However, there are many parties who would like to invest in the project and some of them belong to the world of organized crime, such as Marcus Branco. Branco is a criminal boss in a wheelchair, nevertheless his handicap doesn't deter him from being ruthless and abominable, and he doesn't hesitate to threaten, rape and kill for pleasure or business. He is a fascinating villain and an antagonist worthy of the Millenium tradition which has given us some of the most detestable bad guys, the majority of them belonging to the higher echelons of the Swedish society. However, this well-crafted character comes as a stark contrast to the skimpy character outlining of both Mikael and Lisbeth. Both protagonists seem to have forever lost their magic and mystique as Smirnoff chooses to integrate some fundamental traits to each one, nevertheless, the bigger picture remains exiguous and comes across to the reader as inadequate. There is nothing reminiscent of Mikael's superlative wits and buzzing instincts, while Lisbeth seems to be a shadow of her former self, simply carrying through with her lines in her dialogue bits.
Smirnoff's novel is not hard-to-read and will entertain you, especially if you are not a demanding crime fiction reader, nonetheless the simple fact that it is the seventh installment in the most lauded and discussed book series in the Nordic countries makes me more austere in my assessment(s). The Girl in the Eagle's Talons stands at a higher level than Lagercrantz's novels, but fails to revive the magic of the initial trilogy, mainly due to the deficient characterization of the two protagonists. The novel has other merits, and they should be enough for the average reader of the genre, however the hardcore fans of Stieg's universe will find it rather hard not to feel a bit underwhelmed in the end.