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Book Review: The Last Oracle by James Rollins

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The first James Rollins book I ever read was Subterranean. It was a “lost world” adventure, about an underground world that spawned the marsupial creatures that inhabit Australia. The book was a blistering good read and I read it — held completely in thrall — in a single sitting. Not many 400-page novels can do that to me these days.

Rollins is the pseudonym of Jim Czajkowski, but he also writes fantasy novels under the pen name James Clemens. As Clemens, he’s written and published seven high fantasy novels so far, with more in the works.

Writing under the Rollins name, he wrote five stand-alone thrillers that took readers inside the earth — Subterranean, into high mountains — Excavation, to the ocean’s bottom — Deep Fathom, through the deepest jungles — Amazonia, and to the most remote and dangerous pole in the world — Ice Hunt. He also wrote the novelization of the newest Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

In Sandstorm, Rollins introduces a covert espionage team called Sigma Force that deals with archeological and scientific threats to the world. Made up of scientists and military personnel, Sigma Force goes anywhere and battles anything to ferret out puzzles and mysteries left throughout history. Imagine Dan Brown on steroids with Tom Clancy weaponry and you’ve got a good idea of what Rollins does in these books.

His interest in science and history are immediately noticeable in these books. They’re carefully researched (albeit with an eye toward getting Rollins and his fans where they want to go in high adventure), and the pacing is absolutely frantic. Not only does Rollins present information, but he also leavens the exciting mixture with no-holds barred conjecture on his part. He doesn’t just know how to relay information, he’s quite handy at spinning theories in bite-sized chunks that don’t get in the way of the action and don’t blow the readers away. I read these books for the information bytes almost as much as for the action and adventure.

The fifth and newest novel in the series, The Last Oracle, begins with a bang. After a prologue containing a compelling peek back at the Oracle of Delphi, Commander Gray Pierce is approached by a man only seconds before the man is shot and dies in Pierce’s arms. The callous murder sends Sigma Force into motion to try to figure out what’s going on – especially since the dead man seemed to know about Sigma Force, one of the most closely guarded secrets in the United States espionage network.

The man turns out to be Dr. Polk, one of the men who helped create Sigma Force. As soon as that mystery is cleared up, the team realizes that Polk — not Pierce — was the intended target all along. Even more mysterious, Polk was a walking dead man, already dying from radiation poisoning.

Rollins plants his clues deftly, charging into the adventure vigorously. A coin clutched by Polk leads them to the museum, and to Dr. Polk’s daughter, Elizabeth. I love the pacing of these books, but Rollins strips the characters down a lot, leaving them more blocked-out than filled in. Sometimes I miss not getting to know more about them, but then I realize with the headlong pacing of the books there’s no real way to explore any kind of personal life.

In short order, Rollins has his plot up and running, separating Sigma Force into teams and branching out with different avenues of action. Director Painter Crowe and his group try to figure out the mystery of the Russian girl that falls into their hands while Gray Pierce follows up on the trail of breadcrumbs Dr. Polk has left behind. On another front, we pick up the story of yet another Sigma Force member who’s fighting for his life to escape enemy clutches with a cadre of the psychically gifted children. And then there are the machinations of the bad guys.

Although I finished the book in a couple sittings, I admit I had to take a breath now and again to figure out who was doing what to whom from time to time. Rollins introduces all the elements of his adventure, from the Oracle of Delphi to the Gypsy culture to Punjab history, and then kicks in a lot of psychic spying (remote viewing that the Russians spent so much time with), as well as archeological and scientific background.

Rollins tells his story adroitly, like a sketch artist. He lays out a line that gives the reader just enough to whet the imagination, then jumps to another set of characters and does the same. The pacing and plotting is pure potboiler, and these books could have easily been pulps or serials movies back in the 1940s. Rollins has acknowledged a love of Doc Savage novels when he was younger, and it truly shows.

The Last Oracle also deals with a cliffhanger left over from The Judas Strain, and a lot of fans are going to be reading with even more interest than the casual reader. Rollins puts a lot on the line for his regular readers, and they’re going to respond.

The book is out just in time for summer, but I have to warn you: if you open this book and begin reading expecting to have a calm day of it, you’re going to spend the day on the beach or in a hammock tensed up, dodging bullets and bad guys, and trying to figure out the final mystery of The Last Oracle.

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