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.
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.
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.
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 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.