Review of James Rollins's Altar of Eden

[Contact Me] | [FAQ]

[Some "Dougisms" Defined]

[About Dickens of a Blog]

[Jump to Site Links]

Summary: In Altar of Eden, science gone bad meets religious imagery. In a mash-up of a Michael Bay movie with H.G. Well's Island of Dr. Moreau, Rollins aims for a rollicking equivalent of a quick-cut book. While the literature is thin, the characters are from clip-art repositories, and the villain is a paint-by-number; the whole thing might have worked if he had just toned down some of the more cliche lines. As is, the whole thing is dangerously close to an echo of older, better things and should only be picked up by those who want to lounge with a beer on a beach and waste away a Sunday.

BLOT: (06 Feb 2011 - 07:46:41 PM)

Review of James Rollins's Altar of Eden

My first glimpse into James Rollins occurred around 2006. I was managing an overstock bookstore at the time—Book Gallery—and a customer came in asking if we had any of Rollins's works. We had two—Amazonia and Ice Hunt—that he already had read, and so I personally picked them up and brought them home to drop on my never ending and ephemerally conceptualized to-read list. Why? Because he had used such phrases as "like Michael Crichton but way more exciting" and "seriously the best novels!" Phrases that are the review equivalent of mixed metaphors, for sure, a hint of an adrenalin junkie's addiction aimed at words and plot; but nevertheless phrases of unwavering praise.

To say Altar of Eden is the Michael Bay equivalent of a novel is perhaps inaccurate, but I think it will suffice. We are talking of a book that includes four primary scenes of pyrotechnics, each roughly a stage up from the last, along with multiple helicopters and gun porn mixed in with those good [with firearms and the ladies] soldiers who somehow put personal ethics in front of the rules but don't end up court-martialled. Toss in some elementary level morality lessons with a heavy handed double-thick icing of Christian iconography at key times, and there you go. What's missing? Well, that's simple, you just need a blonde (redhaired also acceptable) female scientist with an emotional roadblock in her past and a general vacancy next to her heart and a smoldering, swarthy military type man with his own emotional upheaval and a soft inside wrapped around his tough, down-to-business exterior. And he has to save her. Top off the whole thing with bad guys largely described by (a) their disrespect for women and (b) the disregard for the sanctity of motherhood and children and you have a complete package.

To explain, or to at least elaborate, on what I am saying, let's take a look at a scene at an alligator farm early on in the novel. A group of boyscouts are staying over. An escaped genetic experiment is on its way. A scientist from a project designed to preserve endangered species, who is also knowledgeable about big predators, is with a group of special forces types trying to intercept. Except before they get to the farm, two boats are capsized and set fire to the water and woods around it. Now they have to penetrate the flames while avoiding the genetically augmented killing machine. Fastforward past the point where they have accomplished a portion of this. They are bringing in a copter, of course, when a would-be rapist life-long bully and beneficiary of nepotism comes out with an automatic shotgun, trips, and shoots the helicopter carrying good guys out of the air. Leading to another crash. There is more to that scene, but I'll leave it be.

I guess I should give some semblance of a plot. Ok. A boat load of genetic freak animals crashes down south of New Orleans. Some of the animals are rescued by Lorna Polk, the aforementioned blonde scientist with emotional roadblocks past. She brought on board by Jack Menard (soldering 'n swarthy). They find that at least one of the experiments has escaped, a massive killing machine, and start to hunt it (see above alligator farm on flames). By this time, they are in up to their neck and people with deep pockets and a lack of morals (and a total disrespect for the sanctity of motherhood) need them out of the way. All leading to an island-based battle between men with guns, down-home boys from the bayou with guns, not so much evil as just following orders scientists, horribly scarred, women-disrespecting men with bigger guns and explosives, and preternaturally intelligent animals and ape-things. It's nearly too much book for its circa 500 pages, and barely enough actual story to fill a YA adult novel half that size.

But people who want to read this aren't in it for the story, in the way that someone who rereads Howard's End for the third time are picking at the story for subtly missed details. They are in it for the story in the way that every explosion, ever heart-racing glance at a would-be lover, and every boat speeding to save the day is a story in its own right. This is a novel of events, peopled by characters you have met a dozen times before with different names, and building up to a big idea that can be summed up simply as where money meets human hubris. In the midst of this you get speeches about science gone awry and the power of life. And if you thought I was describing Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, you are getting the point of the "seen before" sentence. Perhaps the single biggest misstep is allowing key points in the book to have some of the worst writing, apparently trying to focus more on the flow behind the words being considered more important the words itself. That, and having the brilliant scientist's eyes go wide as she finds out about fractals, a concept she has apparently never heard of before, and then even wider as a computer draws triangles on a screen.

With all my sarcasm aside, it's a readable book, even if you have to sometimes take the lumps with the gravy. It doesn't take long, and at worst is only truly bad in a half-dozen places and it is good in about as many. With a beer in the other hand a beach in front of you, this might be a great book. Otherwise, maybe think of it is as Fair if what you are after is action and a way to pass the time. If what you are looking for is something more groundbreaking, better paced, and better written, you might need to drop that a peg.

LABEL(s): Book Reviews


Written by Doug Bolden

For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".

"The hidden is greater than the seen."