Map of Bones, James Rollins

Avon, 2005, 523 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-076524-0

The runaway success of Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller The Da Vinci Code had terrifying consequences: an entire cohort of copycat novels. Suddenly, mixing history with big thrills (preferably with a side order of religious conspiracies and high tech gadgets) was the genre’s favourite recipe. A number of new authors appeared on the scene with trunk novels that just happened to catch the right wave, while other veteran authors suddenly found themselves encouraged to write a certain type of novel.

It’s presumptuous to link James Rollins’ Map of Bones directly to The Da Vinci Code: Without priviledged access to the author, who can really say that Rollins saw Dan Brown climb up the charts and decided he could do just as well? The only thing we have to go on are the right dates (allowing for a two-year publishing cycle, Map of Bones could have been written as a response to Brown’s early success), explicit cover blurbs and eerily similar thematic elements.

Consider this: A terrorist attack on a German catholic church with supernatural overtones. Another terrorist attack on an American military base with a high-tech secret. A scientific investigation that reveals historical clues. A top-secret organization within the Vatican. Another shadowy organization that seeks ultimate power beyond organized crime. Maps with secret clues. Gunfights and chases down subterranean structures. Tons of “factual” details. Oh yes: Even if Rollins was never inspired by Dan Brown’s success, his marketers aren’t shy about making the comparison twice on the back cover, and readers will definitely feel similar thrills.

The irony is that I may be harping about the novel’s derivative nature, but Rollins has seldom written anything better. His first few novels felt like standard-issue thrillers, sometimes a bit too ludicrous to be taken seriously. But with Map of Bones, Rollins finally finds his way to a superior thriller. The action is tighter, the characters are more distinctive, the details are more interesting and the pacing never flags. The union of historical clues with high-tech gadgets is well-handled, and Map of Bones simply rockets forward. As a result, it easily rockets to the top of my list of his novels.

You can even say that it’s better written than Brown’s novel… although that’s not saying much, of course.

It’s not perfect, of course. The scientific justification for the quasi-supernatural elements that rocket the plot forward is almost painfully stupid and won’t earn any bonus points from anyone with at least high-school physics. Worse, though, is the novel’s conclusion, which resorts to the hoary “there are things man isn’t meant to know, yadda-yadda” cliché to refuse its readers a world-shattering explanation even though the entire novel’s been building toward it. We’re left with a bright flash, a few lines of pseudo-lyrical description and a hole in the ground: another triumph for the small-mindedness of thriller writers looking to the sequels.

Of course, there are sequels. Rollins is now up to his third “Sigma Force” novel, The Judas Strain, proving to the world that he has absolutely no shame left in exploiting flash crazes. Good for him: if we’re lucky, we’ll even get a passable novel out of the lot. Heck, I didn’t expect much from this one and ended up pleasantly surprised. If he can keep it up, maybe I’ll have to stop making all of those Dan Brown references.

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