The Force is back.
No, not the one created for cinema by George Lucas. James Rollins’ Sigma Force operatives have returned for a fifteenth time, and his latest novel, The Last Odyssey (William Morrow), delivers what thousands of fans have come to expect from one of the masters of the historical thriller genre.
The plot plays out on a global stage that, in this case, boils (literally) into a cataclysmic climax in a remote corner of Africa. Because of Rollins’ scientific background and his passion for deep research into the historical grounding behind ancient myths and legends, he always paints a believable sheen of reality onto his stories.
You find yourself thinking, in spite of your skepticism, “Could some of this crazy stuff actually be true?” Then you read his always well-documented author’s notes at the end of his books, and the answer is, “Well, yeah.” That’s part of the fun.
As Rollins’s fans know, Sigma Force is a fictional and secretive offshoot of the U.S. defense intelligence agency whose operatives have highly specialized military and scientific skills for covert operations. In The Last Odyssey, Sigma Force members, led by never-say-die Gray Pierce and Seichan, his former-foe-turned-spouse, deploy after researchers stumble upon an ancient Arab ship frozen under a glacier in Greenland.
HOMER’S EPICS AND SIGMA FORCE COLLIDE
The ship contains ancient artifacts, including urns that spill a substance causing terror and death, unleashing creepy bronze “spiders” and fire that water can’t quench. Rollins is a master of edge-of-your-seat action, and you’ll be relieved that you’re not trapped under that iceberg with the research team once you understand the threats they’re facing.
In the captain’s cabin, the researchers find a priceless treasure in the form of a clockwork gold map embedded with an ancient navigation device called an astrolabe. The back story of this troubled captain on an ill-fated ship is one of the book’s highlights. The team learns that devices were crafted by Muslim inventors working at the height of the Arab world’s Golden Age, a renaissance of science and math knowledge, as Europe languished in the Dark Ages.
After Force members help to rescue the mission survivors from the aptly named (and real) Helheim Glacier, they learn that the mysterious map traces the path of the ship of Odysseus, Homer’s legendary hero, as it sailed from ancient Troy toward a hidden, subterranean world called Tartarus, the Greek name for Hell.
Tartarus is no place most of us would want to be, but it’s easy to understand why evil doers would want to find it. According to legend, it holds weapons of unreal power, though it’s guarded by monstrous creations and traps.
Sigma Force faces this question: Is it possible that Homer’s tales of gods and monsters in The Iliad and The Odyssey actually have a historic basis? There’s reason to believe so. It’s up to Sigma Force to find the members of an apocalyptic cult who may have penetrated their ranks and will stop at nothing to unleash Armageddon by unlocking hell’s gates. The story is off to the races across the Mediterranean Sea with stops in Turkish underground cities, Greece, Italy and papal enclaves before the climax in Morocco.
FORMULA FOR ANOTHER PAGE-TURNER
If The Last Odyssey has a weakness, it’s the one that many authors of successful series books face. At some point, things begin to feel predictable, particularly for writers like Rollins and Dan Brown who have found successful formulas. But formulas can get, well, formulaic. So, give me more surprises in theme, dialogue and character development.
Rollins seems to be moving in that direction in the Gray Pierce-Seichan relationship. Faithful readers have followed Seichan’s transformation from a hardened, highly skilled enemy assassin into Pierce’s colleague. She’s still one tough hombre, but now she’s also the wife and mother of his child. In The Last Odyssey, we see her struggle with her desire to stay in the covert ops game versus her obligations as a caregiver. Talk about a power couple. Gray and Seichan have to be one of the literary world’s most intriguing pairs. They help make The Last Odyssey a satisfying read that’ll keep you turning pages.
Just watch out for “Greek fire.” It might be real.