Friday, December 4, 2009

This is the novel I’ve been waiting for…

Altar of Eden
by James Rollins

I love James Rollins' SIGMA novels, but after a while, all series start to feel a bit old to me. Like many other readers, I've really been hoping for a return to the stand alone thrillers with which he began his career. My wish has been granted with his latest work, Altar of Eden, and it was everything I could have hoped for.

Some books can be summarized with a single, high-concept sentence. That's never the case with Rollins, though this book is structured differently and is in many ways simpler than the SIGMA novels. More on that in a moment. The novel opens in the wake of a hurricane. Research veterinarian, Dr. Lorna Polk, is collected from her workplace by a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter and ferried out into the Louisiana swamplands. She can't fathom who has requested her or why she is being brought here. The "who" turns out to be Field Operations Supervisor Jack Menard, a painful ghost from her past. The "why" is a shipwreck. A shipwreck that looks like a mysterious and nightmarish crime scene, and which holds a most extraordinary living cargo. Her first guess is that they've stumbled upon an exotic animal smuggling ring, but as Rollins writes:
"Jack shone his flashlight into the nearest cage. She stared inside--and knew she was wrong about everything."
James Rollins is great about writing these hooky endings to his chapters. They're sort of textbook, but irresistible! I know they keep me turning the pages.

I noted the structure of this novel above. The SIGMA novels all contain multiple narrative threads and stories. They're notably complex thrillers. Altar of Eden has a single narrative thread throughout. it is the story of where this discovery takes Jack and Lorna, and it's broken into three discrete parts.

Act One encompasses the first third of the novel, and it reminded me of nothing so much as those old creature feature films from the 70s. You remember the ones? Where the mutant piranhas are heading upstream to the summer camp? That's just a nostalgic example, there are absolutely no mutant piranha in this novel (though, if that's your cup of tea, definitely check out Rollins' Amazonia), but something has escaped that shipwreck, and it's stalking the bayou. The hunt is on!

Act Two is the shortest of the three. Here, the protagonists have a chance to catch their breath--for like a minute. It's a chance for Lorna and her colleagues to strut their scientific stuff. And this is the part I have to assume other Rollins fans like me love. Every Rollins novel features at least one element of mind-blowing science. My favorite part of this one involved magnetite crystals in the brain, but the fractals were really cool too! There are tantalizing tidbits from any number of scientific disciplines, but don't worry if you're not as geeky as me. Rollins doesn't go too deeply into anything. His explanations are brief, clear, and intriguing. (As always, he has an author's note at the end to separate fact from fiction. And, as always, there's more fact than you might expect.) Unfortunately for our protagonists, the bad guys who were in the background of Act One come front and center in Act Two.

Act Three is the lengthiest of all. It's the endgame. Dr. Polk discovers that what she found in the Mississippi Delta was just the tip of the iceberg. I have to admit that I had a few small quibbles with the end of this novel that I can't discuss without massive spoilers. Nonetheless, those quibbles did not take away from my enjoyment of this excellent page-turner. I read much of it on an airplane, and it kept me compelled for 3,000 miles.

Amusingly, I listened to a large section of this novel on my Kindle, while wandering the National Zoo. There are a lot of animals in this novel, so I could read about alligators and monkeys while visiting alligators and monkeys! (Yes, I really am a huge geek.) I've heard former-vet Rollins discuss why he's never written about a veterinarian before. "Not enough people die," he always says. Well, he finally found a way to make it work. :-) I'm looking forward to more stand alone adventures!

NOTE: I received a free review copy of this novel from the author.

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