Friday, March 05, 2010

Altar of Eden

It is difficult to describe a book like Altar of Eden without giving away too much of its plot. In simple terms, it can be thought of as a high speed thriller/shoot ‘em up that combines key elements of The Island of Dr. Moreau (H.G. Wells) and Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton). As much as I like The Island of Dr. Moreau, I dislike Jurassic Park so it does not surprise me that I have mixed emotions about Altar of Eden.

On the one hand, this is a science-based thriller and author James Rollins provides enough detail about fractal research and DNA manipulation to give his plot a certain degree of credibility. On the other hand, much of the book is filled with endless gun battles and sieges fought by a host of rather stereotypical characters on both sides (especially the Cajun bunch featured so prominently in the story). Rollins knows how to write a good thriller, and he punches all the right buttons in this one, but I have read enough thrillers now that they do not “thrill” me like they used to. What kept me reading this one was a desire to find out exactly what the rogue scientists were trying to achieve and what was going wrong for them.

Dr. Lorna Polk, a veterinarian researcher, is stunned by what she finds in the hold of a boat that washes up on the coast of southern Louisiana after a bad storm. The caged animals there, while recognizable, appear to be throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary period during which they were not only larger than their modern counterparts but displayed physical characteristics long lost in the evolutionary process. What appears to be a baby saber-tooth jaguar is alone in one of the cages and the immediate problem becomes one of finding the baby’s gigantic mother before she kills anyone as she moves up the coast in search of food.

Lorna Polk and Jack Menard, the officer she teams up with, do not have to worry about finding the bad guys because those people are coming to them in a desperate attempt to get back their lost animals. This is a story of evil scientists, the amoral exploitation of science for military purposes, corrupt paramilitary organizations, religious fanaticism, and those innocently caught in the crossfire, including the victims produced by genetic research gone bad. Rollins also includes an interwoven bit of back history involving Lorna Polk and Jack Menard to make his characters more sympathetic to the reader and to break up what would otherwise have been an endless series of pitched gun battles. Strangely enough, even with all this back story, the most sympathetic characters in the book are not Lorna Polk and Jack Menard but are, instead, the animals and humans produced by the failed genetic experiments.

As a thriller, Altar of Eden is only average but there is enough other stuff going on here to make it worth a look.

Rated at: 3.0

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