Tuesday, March 2, 2010

not-so-thrilling thriller

Niki Bruce reviews a novel that raises the fear of genetic manipulation once again.

THE premise of James Rollins' book Altar of Eden, while not entirely new, will manage to make even the most staunch proponent of technological advancement take a few moments to think about the negatives.


Centered around a feisty, young veterinarian, Lorna, the book tracks the appearance of a number of mysterious animals – all apparent genetic throwbacks – after a storm in the delta of Louisiana.

After recovering the less aggressive animals, Lorna realises that there's something much more dangerous on the loose – a saber-tooth tiger. So, along with old friend Jack, who is now a US Border Patrol agent, Lorna races off to track the animal.

At the same time, the Lorna and Jack realise that not only is the cargo genetically odd, their provenance is just as mysterious. On top of that, the animals' apparent owners are as dangerous as the saber-tooth tiger.

While the introduction is a bit on the slow side, the pace takes off as Lorna and Jack appear to be in a race against time to save the animals, find out what they actually are and defend themselves against the ruthless, ex-military group that's trying to wipe them all off the map.

The story zooms along with references to the military-industrial complex, private contractors, Defence dollars and eventually the denouement where human DNA is added to the mix.

Unfortunately for Rollins, while the action isn't bad and the characters are reasonably well-written with good back stories, the overall premise has been done before; and done better.

Most notable in this genre is Paul McAuley's White Devils that was published in 2005 to critical and reader acclaim. Like Rollins' story – White Devils is about a misguided group of scientists attempting to turn animals into some sort of military weapon by genetic manipulation.

Unfortunately the twist to Rollins' novel is also uncannily like that of McAuley's book – the obvious squirm factor of human DNA being added into the equation.

So although Altar of Eden isn't a badly written book, the plot is glaringly obvious from the outset. So too is the eventual relationship between the two lead characters, despite a touching back story. All in all, these similarities are a shame, since Rollins is clearly a good writer.

However, if you enjoy these sorts of science-thrillers – think Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain – then give Altar of Eden a go. There's plenty of action, reasonably understandable science and an easy plot.

I only hope that the premise of Rollins' next book is a lot more original.

Altar of Eden by James Rollins is published by Orion Books and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on
January 28, 2010 


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