I Am Pilgrim book review

I Am Pilgrim is Terry Hayes debut spy thriller novel, and it's been sitting on my to-read pile since it was released in 2013. A former screen writer who's work includes Mad Max and Dead Calm, Hayes debut is an ambitious story that roams the globe - from New York, to Afghanistan, Turkey, the Gaza Strip, and everywhere in-between.

No plot spoilers here, but suffice to say, if you are a fan of spy thrillers, there's much to like in I Am Pilgrim. Set in post 9/11 America, the novel weaves together the micro-plot of a baffling murder of a woman found in an acid bath in a New York hotel, with the macro-plot of a race-against-time between Pilgrim, code name for a member of US intelligence, and a jihad terrorist obsessed with destroying America. 

Hayes creates detailed back-stories for his two main characters and the book travels the globe to describe how the American hero - Pilgrim, came to be a somewhat jaded American spy, and how his nemesis, Saracen, became a radicalized jihad warrior. 

Much like the Bond films, the multiple and at times beautiful and strange settings of the story are a highlight. Hayes has lived or traveled to many of the locations he uses in the book, and his descriptions of New York, the Swiss banking system, and the remote Turkish cliff ruins only visible at low tide, provide a fascinating backdrop to the plot. 

For me, his screen-writing background shines through in his writing style. It certainly keeps the story moving forward with lots of big, brash action scenes, and multiple plot twists and turns to keep readers turning the pages.

It's best not to examine the plot logic too hard, especially the linking of the micro and macro plot, which strains credibility at points. At times it read like a Hollywood blockbuster film - characters' motivations and the themes are writ large through-out without a lot of nuances. Having said this, Hayes worked hard to develop in Pilgrim a complex character with a spy back-story worthy of it's own novel.

He also tries to unpack the hatred and vengeance driving Saracen, the jihad warrior intent on destroying the western world - casting back to when as a boy, he witnessed the horrifying execution of his father. 

If I had a niggle, its that the book presents Americans as ever-principled and fundamentally on the 'right' side. Despite Pilgrim offhandedly acknowledging that the US does shady things in the name of protecting the 'homeland', the book intimates that these actions are condoned in the name of such protection. It's here I felt uneasy with the book - it strays into the schmaltzy "all-American" hero Hollywood blockbuster territory - where all actions by the "right" side are justified in the name of protecting the greater good.

This slight tendency to 'Hollywoodise" the story came home hard with the book's ending. Hayes clearly set the book up for a sequel, and I've got to agree with the NY Times review that at its end, I Am Pilgrim "suffers a fit of Hollywooditis, and abandons some of the toughness it worked so hard to develop...At the price of credibility, he paves the way for a sequel. It's not a fair trade."

Having said all this, I Am Pilgrim is a wild ride through a post 9/11 spy world - entertaining and ambitious in the many story threads woven together. If you like your spy thrillers - particularly the Bourne trilogy by Robert Ludlum - then you'll like this. Well worth the read.

What about you? Read I Am Pilgrim and liked it? Any other good thrillers you've read lately and can recommend? 


  1. Thanks for the review! Might give this one a go too - have been wanting to read it for awhile :)

    1. It's well worth it Viv. Glad I finally got around to reading it.



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