James Rollins’ covert Sigma Force returns in his latest wild scientific thriller, Map of Bones. This time around, Painter Crowe, the protagonist of previous novels such as Sandstorm, has assumed the mantle of Sigma’s leadership in the wake of revelations that the agency had been infiltrated and co-opted by the sinister Guild. He’s assembled a new team of field agents, led by Grayson Pierce, a tough, independent-minded character who ended up in a military prison for a fight with a superior officer. For the record, Pierce is also quite bright, with degrees in all sorts of things (all the Sigma team members have advanced degrees and significant combat skills—it’s actually hard to keep all of it straight at times).
Anyway, the novel opens with a flashback to the ancient past as a couple of monks try to keep a wagon train of relics from the hands of the evil followers of the “black pope” who had usurped control of the church. The story then cuts to present-day Germany, where a couple of young American tourists decide to join a midnight mass at the Cologne Cathedral. Unfortunately, their innocent decision means that they’re caught with other parishioners when a collection of men in hooded robes invade the Cathedral, brutally kill virtually everyone present, and then steal the bones of the Three Wise Men from a gold sarcophagus (significantly, they don’t bother to steal the sarcophagus itself—despite being made of gold, it isn’t worth the effort).
Concerns about the way the congregation was killed (apparently, by way of “poisoned” communion wafers and some sort of electromagnetic impulse) mean that the Vatican pulls strings and gets the U.S. government to dispatch a Sigma Force team to aid local investigators in finding out what is going on. Pierce and his team join with Rachel Verona, an investigator with the carabinieri corps in Rome, and her uncle Vigor, a Catholic priest who is actually a Vatican spy. It seems that the evil Dragon Court, a medieval group of alchemists bent on world domination, still operates within the Catholic Church (and that there is likewise a “Thomas Church” which exists in tandem to the larger flow of Catholicism).
The bones of the Magi aren’t really bones at all, but a highly reactive form of gold which may well have been the real-world basis of the manna from heaven which Moses and the Jews ate as they wandered in the wilderness (and which may impart certain mental abilities to those who consume it). The Dragon Court plans to use the gold to accomplish its ultimate goal, which is the unleashing of Armageddon so that they can rule the world which survives.
Pierce, Rachel, and the others face a sinister, faceless foe that constantly seems at least one step (if not more) ahead of them as they try to unravel the secrets of the Magi’s bones. Assassination attempts and enemies lurk at almost every turn. The scientific and historical investigations read like a modern-day tale of Indiana Jones searching for the Ark. The bad guys are really nasty and evil, the good guys have all sorts of cool gadgets, and overall the plot percolates along despite a few clunky (read: lame) efforts at romantic interludes. When I read Rollins’ last thriller (Sandstorm, in which the Sigma Force must investigate a secret lost city buried in the middle of the desert), I was struck by how much emphasis he placed on the details of his story and how little care he took in developing the nuances of relationships. That tendency continues here.
Here, one can’t say Rollins doesn’t try. He saddles Pierce with a father suffering from Alzheimer’s and a potential romantic entanglement (via the sexy Rachel, who loves driving fast cars and busting bad guys). Unfortunately, all he really does is provide us with a couple more scenarios, not meaningful relationships. The characters are shuffled around to serve the ends of the plot and the members of Pierce’s team were largely cookie-cutter ciphers. The “relationship” between Pierce and Rachel wasn’t actually developed by way of any significant subtextual interaction; as Rollins moves his perspective between the various characters, we learn that each is interested in the other and likes the other’s eyes or attitude, but it never really evolves into anything meaningful for the reader.
The upshot is that Map of Bones is an entertaining, if superficial, scientific thriller. In that context, it delivers plenty of thrills and spills, from Pierce’s one-on-one battle against a bomb-wielding member of “the Guild” while they are both wearing “liquid armor” to the climactic confrontation with the leaders of the Dragon Court beneath St. Peter’s Cathedral. Rollins is careful to characterize his science as accurate and many of the things he portrays in the book as being grounded in fact. Really, about the only quibble one could have with the book is that he ought to try grounding his characters with more humanity.