In this fourth installment of the Millennium Series of novels begun by Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander (antihero computer/math genius) and her sidekick Mikael Blomkvist (idealistic investigative journalist) take on a coalition of the Russian Mafia, rogue elements of the NSA, criminal anti-hackers, and an "evil twin," in their quest to reveal government crimes, solve the murder of a prominent computer scientist, exact revenge, and fight off a hostile takeover of Millennium magazine. As with the first three novels, there's a lot going on for our heroes to handle.
But I think the big question that greeted the release of this book was whether the author, David Lagercrantz, was able to continue the series created by the late Stieg Larsson and maintain the integrity of the storyline and characters that Mr. Larsson made so popular. The consensus seems to be that he did and I have to agree. I noted one reviewer who said she felt like she was reading Mr. Larsson's writing and I have to agree with that too. Overall, I would say that Mr. Lagercrantz must have loved the first three books and did a thorough job in his research of them. His initial foray into the world of Lisbeth Salander is pretty much seamless.
Now in my opinion, The Girl in the Spider's Web is technically better written than Mr. Larsson's books. Both the plotting and the prose are tighter and that resulted in a book that is 250 to 400 pages shorter than Mr. Larsson's books. I think the tighter prose is not because Mr. Lagercrantz is a better writer, but more likely because Mr. Larsson was pushed by ill health to get his manuscripts finished, and they weren't adequately edited. That is strictly my opinion, but I base it on that so much of Mr. Larsson's prose was sheer exposition and large sections were even irrelevant to the storyline, reading like backstory. Mr. Lagercrantz's version, by and large, eliminates these issues.
In spite of the technical difficulties of the first three books, they established a setting and characters that garnered a global host of ardent fans who elevated the antihero protagonist to cult status. That made producing a fourth book a gutsy proposition, but one that I believe Mr. Lagercrantz pulled off.
In Spider's Web Lisbeth Salander is satisfyingly edgy, brilliant, and antisocial. She has reconciled with Blomkvist enough to work with him, but still from a distance. We learn more about her history and it is a believable extension of what was revealed in the previous three books. I would assume it all came from Mr. Larsson's notes. We also see her relate to a child who is a mathematical savant. The boy, August Balder, is in some ways a reflection of Salander as a child and she recognizes that. The scenes with them are an interesting counterpoint to Salander's more hard-bitten ones where she is flouting authority or being vengeful.
Salander's foil, Mikael Blomkvist, is also presented true-to-first-books. He is still idealistic in pursuing journalism that "makes a difference," though he finds it tough resting on past laurels in a time when print magazines are going all electronic. Faced with becoming irrelevant, he must also endure the threat of his beloved Millennium magazine being cheapened, out of the need to obtain a financial rescue from a big publishing company led by an old rival. Blomkvist is uncomfortable with his fame and concerned with losing it only to the extent it might hurt Millennium. He is ever loyal to Salander and he gets involved in the mystery of the computer scientist's murder only when he learns of a connection between the man and Salander.
Most of the other characters established in the first books are here as well, and all struck me as true to form. Mr. Lagercrantz doesn't dwell on them as much, but that struck me as good because there is no need to. Still we still see the workings of the local police as well as of SAPO (Swedish Intelligence Agency) as they deal with the story's murders and mysteries. Here, Mr. Lagercrantz added an interesting aspect with the existential crisis undergone by the police inspector, Jan Bublanski. It adds a certain philosophical note to everything and might say something along the lines of "what's the point of all this?". A similar note is sounded with a new character, Gabriella Grane, of SAPO, through whom we get a word on the book's theme:
She shuddered at the creeping realization that we live in a twisted world where everything, both big and small, is subject to surveillance, and where anything worth money will always be exploited.
That might also be the theme of the whole series.
Of course, these books deal a lot with computer technology, given the vocation of the protagonist. Mr. Larsson's books were very true to that technology at the level it existed at around 2004. Mr. Lagercrantz's book brings it up to the current time (2015). And while he does a good job of that, where I think he didn't do as well as Mr. Larsson is in showing us Salander working at it. That is, we see her at her laptop, hacking and researching, but we're watching her from a greater distance than we were when Mr. Larsson was describing such scenes. Somehow, I got a greater feeling for Salander's devotion to her work and felt the dynamic of her pounding that keyboard for answers in a way more visceral than shown in Spider's Web. I could say the same for the workings of the publishing world in those scenes with Blomkvist at Millennium. It is there, but I felt it more in Mr. Larsson's prose. This is a minor criticism, however, and I expect most fans won't notice it.
Regarding the updating of the series' storyline, I have to give Mr. Lagercrantz kudos for attacking the issue of unlimited surveillance by government agencies. He even places scenes inside the NSA and, via one notable character, pits the NSA against Salander. But in doing so, he follows Mr. Larsson's lead in letting the NSA and other government agencies off too lightly. Their faults are seen as coming from "rogue elements" or "bad apples" rather than being systemic. Maybe the Swedes have more faith in authority than I do.
It also seems to me that, in spite of the tighter prose, there is a lot of exposition in the narrative--telling not showing. Again, it's not as bad as in the first books but it is noticeable. Maybe it's a Swedish thing or a result of the translation, but I thought it was too much and it cost a star in my rating.
At the ending of Spider's Web, there is a sense of "wrapping up" that is satisfying, but I don't think it signals the end of the series. Actually, about midway through the book I was beginning to wonder of the story threads spun by Mr. Larsson were going to wind up with this book. Then Camilla Salander popped up and was developed just enough to add the promise for a worthy antagonist for Lisbeth. That could carry another book or two if handled well.
It has got to be intimidating to pick up writing a fiction series that has developed a worldwide cult following, but it seems David Lagercrantz was the man for the job. I expect most fans will be pleased with his results.