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Altar of Eden by James Rollins
Review by Liz de Jager
Orion Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781409113553
Date: 29 April 2010 List Price 12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

"Louisiana veterinarian Lorna Polk stumbles upon a shipwrecked fishing trawler carrying a caged group of exotic animals, clearly part of a black market smuggling ring. Yet, something is wrong with these beasts, disturbing deformities that make no sense. They also all share one uncanny trait - heightened intelligence.

To uncover the truth about the origin of this strange cargo and the terrorist threat it poses, Lorna must team up with Jack Menard, a man who has a dark and bloody past. Together, they must hunt for a beast that escaped the shipwreck while uncovering a mystery that traces back to mankind's earliest roots...

The fate of a new global terror lies in an ancient biblical mystery from the Book of Genesis... The breathtaking new thriller from the NYT bestselling author of Map of Bones and The Doomsday Key."

I chose to review Altar of Eden because I felt genre readers would enjoy it, especially those fans of near-future SF. Rollins' novel is a mixture of modern day science and action adventure, with a strong plot, unusual main characters and a setting (New Orleans and surrounding bayous) that heavily lends itself to wanting to believe in the most improbable things.

As main characters go, Lorna Polk held her own in the novel. She comes with baggage from a nasty past and is really just trying to make ends meet. She likes her job at ACRES (Audubon Centre for Research of Endangered Species - a real facility) where she oversees the "frozen zoo" where they preserve the sperm, eggs and embryos from hundreds of endangered species. Lorna is good at what she does. She intelligent, but not a super-brain so it makes it easier, as the story moves ahead, for us to learn how things fit together through her as our POV character.

I just re-read the description of Jack Menard above and will forgive you if you gagged a bit - "... a man who has a dark and bloody past"!. Yes, he's very much the alpha male in the novel but there is very little posturing here. He's down to earth, honest, and yes, because of his past in the army he's a little bit more dangerous than the usual bayou dweller one might come across. He also knows Lorna from their teens but this is the first time they've met as adults. There is a strong undercurrent of mistrust and things unspoken from the past, but we are only teased with this. I was happy to wait as I knew Rollins wouldn't keep it up and distract us from the real story.

Rollins writes at breakneck speed. If you can't keep up, you've got a problem. His science is snappy and direct, using both Lorna and Jack to substitute for us, we are quickly brought up to speed on the anomalies found in the creatures they rescue from the wrecked trawler. There are a lot of questions and even bigger ones are raised when they realise that something akin to a sabretooth cat had managed to escape from the trawler and is hunting the bayou. Not just that, but she had a cub with her. In other words, an already insanely dangerous animal has just become a triple threat. Jack puts together a group of hunters, all of them locals and reluctantly agrees to take Lorna with him - she knows big cats, having tracked and worked with them in Africa.

Lorna fits into Jack's world - she's a local and she knows her way around guns. She's not squeamish and knows how to be of help. She's level-headed and probably reflects the more feminine view of the group of hunters. Sadly, things do not go as planned and the sabretooth and her cub die, but not before Lorna figures out that the animals are super-intelligent. It's as if they can reason, plot and ambush.

Back at ACRES there's a massive confab underway as Lorna's colleagues all try to figure out what exactly has been done to these animals. Before we know it, ACRES itself is under attack from the unsavoury forces whose duty it was to prevent these animals from escaping during their transport to a secure facility. Lorna's taken after a prolonged siege - during which she manages to kill an attacker by throwing nitrous oxide into his face, making his eyes explode! - and flown to the home base of the deranged people who have been working on the animals and, as it turns out, humans.

Here, all is revealed with great care and thoroughness by the main scientist and also a Richard Attenborough-type character from Jurassic Park. Their stories work, not because they come across as raving lunatics, but because Rollins imbues these madmen with a logic and sense of rightness that would have swayed lesser beings than Lorna.

Needless to say, the base of operations in itself is both expected and unexpected, as was the resolution of the novel. Jack and his team of hunters and colleagues from the rangers lay down an assault on the island and discover, first hand, the atrocities inflicted on the inhabitants of the picturesque and outwardly perfect island of Eden Cay.

I can't help but draw comparisons here with Jurassic Park and The Island of Doctor Moreau, that novel by HG Wells which still gives me the creeps! But please note that the similarities are quite superficial and that Rollins has managed to create a very unique thriller here, one that runs rampant with current medical and scientific advances. He's a brilliant storyteller and has managed to mix and match things up enough to make you walk away and think: yeah, that can happen!

Do give Altar of Eden a try if you are in the mood for something different from your usual speculative fiction reading. I found it interesting that at the back of the novel he's taken the time out to explain a handful of things he mentions throughout the book, quantifying them, letting the reader decide if they would want to dig deeper into the various subjects he touches on in the novel.

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