Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sigma's going to the dogs

by James Rollins

After a brief prologue, James Rollins’ latest Sigma Force thriller picks up shortly after where last year’s superlative The Devil Colony left off.  Commander Gray Pierce is dealing with the fallout of his mother’s murder, and the team is ready to exact vengeance against the Guild. (Now, those first two sentences should tell readers something.  While I certainly think that there is enjoyment to be had reading Bloodline as a stand-alone, this installment of the series is very much built upon what’s come before, both in terms of plot and character arcs.  In a perfect world, I’d recommend reading this after reading the other books in the series, or at the very least The Devil Colony.)  Early in the book, the enigmatic double-agent Seichan shows up unexpectedly:

“‘There’s been a kidnapping off the Seychelles by Somali pirates.  A high-value American target.  Painter wanted to know if you were up for a mission.’  Gray frowned.  Why was Sigma involved with a simple kidnapping?  There were plenty of policing and maritime agencies that could attend to such a crime.  Sigma Force—made up of Special Forces soldiers who had been retrained in various scientific disciplines—was a covert wing for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  Sigma teams were sent out into the world to protect against global threats, not to address the kidnapping of a single American.”

Well, there’s high-value, and then there’s HIGH-VALUE.  And this kidnapping victim is the latter.  And wouldn’t you know, this crime eventually leads back to the Guild.  This is the book Mr. Rollins has been promising readers.  It is the ultimate showdown between these two organizations.  And, yes, Sigma is called upon to fulfill the mission stated above.  The Guild’s plot goes well beyond kidnapping, but I shall decline to elucidate further.  What I will do, instead, is highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of the book.


·         Seichan tells Gray, “We’ve been ordered to pick up another two teammates, local assets already in the region, with unique skills to help us on this mission.”  Those who read Rollins’ recently published e-short, Tracker, have already guessed that I’m referring to retired Army war dog, Kane, and his handler, Tucker.  These two are the freshest thing to hit Sigma in quite some time!  First, they’re just great characters.  Former-veterinarian Rollins does a bang-up job writing from a dogs-eye view.  These war dogs are unbelievably skilled.  What they can do, and how they work with their human, is flat-out fascinating.  Are you a fan of Dean Koontz’s Watchers?  You are going to LOVE Kane!

·         I think Rollins’ greatest strength is the integration of really smart, completely fascinating, and scarily plausible science into his plots.  I have never failed to learn something within his pages.  This novel deals with genetics, robotics, and the quest for immortality.  At one point, the mad scientist is giving an epic lecture on how men can live indefinitely, and I’m thinking of a huge scientific impediment to that idea.  I’m about to proclaim it all BOGUS.  Well, almost as if he had read my mind, Rollins addressed my objection.  Is it plausible?  I don’t know.  But it sure sounds legit.  I proclaim it NOT BOGUS.

·         Rollins lets some recently underutilized characters shine in this novel, none more so than Kat Bryant, Sigma’s second in command.  She’s out in the field for the first time in a long time, and this lady knows how to kick some ass.  I’ll never look at her the same way again.  Bloodline is very much an ensemble piece, with everyone getting some face time, and it is stronger for it.

·         Which reminds me… Way to write those strong female protagonists, Mr. Rollins!  This has always been a strength, and it continues to impress.

·         Kowalski.  Kowalski is so awesome in his Kowalskiness.  Who else, after watching Kane’s amazing, life-saving performance under fire, would sum everything up with, “I got to get me one of those dogs”?  He’s always good for comic relief, but Mr. Rollins shows great restraint in not making this character too over the top, or of over-utilizing him.

·         As always, Rollins leaves readers with a fascinating author’s note about fact versus fiction.  This time around he even includes links to video.

Now, die-hard fan that I am, it makes sense that I see more strengths than weaknesses, but as always, I do have some quibbles.


·         For the last few books, Rollins has been trying (successfully) to humanize Seichan, and to reveal more of her background.  That is very much the case here, but for me, personally, things were getting a little too… sentimental.  You may judge for yourself.

·         Also, I don’t need to hear any more about the “inexplicable bond between dog and handler, tying them together by something deeper than just hand signals and spoken commands.”  I LOVED seeing the two in action, and Rollins didn’t belabor the point, but any time their “bond” was referenced, I just wanted to roll my eyes. Clearly, I am a horrible person.

·         Maybe it’s because I’m a Washingtonian, or because I was obsessed with The West Wing, but I found certain elements of the Presidential/White House subplot of the novel strained even my generous suspension of disbelief.

Okay, sorry to prattle on, but there’s always so much to talk about with these books!  Despite my penchant for criticism, when you get right down to it, James Rollins is at the top of my favorite authors list.  As always, he leaves me anxiously awaiting his next installment.

Note: The video below tells far more about the novel's plot than my review does, though obviously the author and publisher aren't giving out significant spoilers.  Also, secret inside scoop, the retriever walking with Jim is his loyal companion, Penny.  I was at his house the day Penny arrived, a sickly, skinny little puppy, many years ago now.  The shepard-looking dog is the same breed as Kane in the novel, and was recently adopted by one of Jim's sisters.  Now you know more than anyone else watching the video, LOL.