"Black Order" by James Rollins

Pros: Beautifully-drawn characters; fascinating plot; complexity without unnecessary confusion
Cons: I could live without the word “mumbled” for a while now
Rating: 5 out of 5

I seem to have a weakness for techno-thrillers—those books that mix modern-day science with the thriller genre. Even when I don’t necessarily understand all the science, which happens often, a good author can do a good enough job of explaining things that I understand enough to make sense of the plot and enjoy the ride.

The problem is, it’s quite difficult to find good techno-thrillers. A truly good techno-thriller requires three things to be a good book as well: interesting, compelling characters; an author who not only knows his science but knows how to communicate it effectively, clearly, simply, and interestingly; and, finally, the same things any other thriller needs: tight writing, good pacing, and a complex, fascinating plot. It’s easy enough to find a techno-thriller that does one of these, and not too hard to find one that does two of them, but very difficult to find one that does all three well.

The Plot

At the end of World War II, all of Germany’s enemies scrambled to loot the results of Germany’s intensive scientific experimentation, while Himmler’s subordinates rushed to destroy or secret away the most important items. Some of them escaped, and they took with them all the knowledge they had of the Bell—a mysterious, powerful, and extremely dangerous artifact.

In present-day Nepal, a terrifying and mysterious illness befalls the inhabitants of a Buddhist monastery. The peaceful men torture and kill each other and anyone else who draws near. Sigma Force director Painter Crowe, who had come to check on the monastery as a favor for a friend, suddenly finds himself in far more danger than he expected—and displaying signs of the same illness that struck the monks. Meanwhile, Dr. Lisa Cummings is brought in to help the monastery, only to find herself caught in a sniper’s crosshairs and fighting for Painter’s life. The monastery is hardly their most disturbing find in the mountains of Nepal, however. There they discover the descendants of some of Himmler’s researchers, hard at work on some truly frightening discoveries.

In Copenhagen, Gray Pierce, also of Sigma Force, follows the trail of the Darwin Bible—a bible that once belonged to Charles Darwin himself—and finds himself the target of another group that seems determined to get its hands on the Bible at any cost. Soon his hunt for the Bible’s history takes him to Germany, and there he finds himself swept into a far deeper and older conspiracy that will send him into the heart of Southern Africa with a motley assortment of companions: Monk, a co-worker; Ryan, a victim of circumstance and timing; and Fiona, a trouble-maker who holds the key to the Darwin Bible.

The Sigma Force criss-crosses continents in its search for the truth, and uncovers many disturbing facts about Himmler’s fascination with runic magic and “super-men.” Science and religion, evolution and intelligent design, intertwine in fascinating ways as the players rush to find a cure for Painter’s illness—and to keep what’s happening to him from happening to the rest of the world. Before it’s over they’ll engage in their own war with what remains of the Nazis, make some unlikely allies, and discover just how far some people will go in search of their idea of perfection.

The Characters

Characters can make or break a story for me, and characters often get short shrift in techno-thrillers. Not so in Black Order. I’ve never read any of James Rollins’s other Sigma Force books, and in fact didn’t realize until I began reading this book that it was part of such a series. Ordinarily this would mean I’d find myself following along with a pack of unfamiliar characters, wondering why I should care about characters I’d barely met. (The other extreme is the author who fully re-introduces his recurring characters with every book, thus frustrating his repeated readers.) I was frankly amazed at Rollins’ exceptional ability to draw a fully-realized and fascinating character with just a few strokes of the pen. It took only the briefest in media res introductions to make me care about, relate to, and understand the characters. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an economical yet effective re-introduction before.

While the characters certainly took full advantage of common archetypes in order to make them readily accessible and understandable, they were by no means stereotypes. They each had depth and dimension, back-story, quirks, fears, and desires that made them quite human.

The Science

I am least qualified to judge the science of the book, a fascinating blend of physics, biology, and more. However, I can say that Rollins continually explained things well enough that I felt I was following along, certainly well enough to at least follow the plot. There’s enough science to bore anyone who has no interest in such things at all, but then I wouldn’t expect such folks to want to pickup a techno-thriller in the first place. I certainly felt the amount of science was appropriate to the needs of the book.

The Writing

The writing is extremely good. It’s lean, spare, and economical in all the right ways. Scenes are detailed enough to be easy to visualize, but drawn in so quickly and easily that detail never interferes with the pace. In fact, pace is something else Rollins has a real knack for. The book follows various parallel plot threads that continue in separate locations with separate characters throughout the book, finally drawing them together in a taut weave at the end. Rollins skillfully uses the parallel structure to enhance the pacing, allowing separate plotlines to feed into each other’s tension and uncertainty. Pacing is another place where a thriller needs to be very carefully written, and Black Order could serve as a template for skillful pacing. Repeatedly I found myself saying “just another half-hour” with regard to other things I needed to do—like, oh, say, meals—because I was so wrapped up in the events of the book.


If you’re looking for a tightly-plotted, deeply science-based techno-thriller with a passel of interesting characters, I highly recommend James Rollins’s Black Order. I think I’m going to have to find more of his books to read, myself.

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7 comments on “"Black Order" by James Rollins
  1. Just read your comment on my blog. Thanks for that, and I have enjoyed your blog so far. Yeah, Black Order was a GREAT book. I totally love how Rollins does his research well on the scientific aspects of his stories. You should check out this cool little cartoon explaining the idea of quantum theory, a BIG part of Black Order: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_tNzeouHC4

  2. heather says:

    Thank you! I’m enjoying the recommendations I’m seeing for further reading, other similar authors, and so on. So many books to read, so few lifetimes!

  3. heather says:

    I have to say, having watched that video now, that it’s a great adjunct to reading the book. It’s a surprisingly clear summary of what happens, and the comic format makes it very memorable. Thank you for posting that!

  4. SciFiChick says:

    I need to start this one soon. I’m a big fan of Rollins’ work.

  5. heather says:

    I’m reading “Deep Fathom” now, and have another of his books on the way. “Black Order” was the first book by Rollins that I read, but it definitely hooked me. It’s interesting reading a recent one first followed by older ones, though; it makes the ways in which he’s improved much more obvious, I think.

  6. annie says:

    Thanks for the review! This will be a great addition to the Bookworms Carnival.

  7. heather says:

    Very cool. I’ve never done the carnival thing before, and I love seeing book-themed carnivals!

4 Pings/Trackbacks for ""Black Order" by James Rollins"
  1. […] there are a lot of so-so or even bad techno-thrillers out there. As I touched on in today’s review of James Rollins’s Black Order: A truly good techno-thriller requires three things to be a good book as well: interesting, […]

  2. […] authors’ books a bit after they come on the scene, such as reading James Rollins’s Black Order—a relatively recent book—before going back and reading older books such as Deep Fathom. […]

  3. […] eeeevil villains, somewhat trite dialogue, and too-neat climax kept it from lingering in the mind. Black Order, which came after today’s Sandstorm, is a very compelling novel that truly shows how much […]

  4. […] Grove presents ?Black Order? by James Rollins posted at Errant Dreams Reviews, saying, “I had trouble putting this book down for meals, so […]

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