Black Order

Reviewed: April 7, 2009
By: James Rollins
Publisher: Harper
506 pages, $10.99

There’s almost too much going on in Black Order. The book book moves at a furious pace as the members of the Sigma Force embark on a series of seemingly unrelated missions which, of course, turn out to be part of the same big mystery.

All the way through the book I kept thinking that it felt familiar, but couldn’t quite figure out why. While doing a little background research on the author I discovered that Jim Czajkowski (his real name) admits to having been a huge fan of the Doc Savage novels when he was a kid. He must have read the Bantam paperback reprints of those 1930s and 40s pulp magazine novels with those striking James Bama covers. He hadn’t realized just how much they had influenced his work until it was pointed out to him by a fan, but he readily admitted that it made perfect sense.

Sigma Force is a clandestine American organization a bit like Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). Interestingly Cussler’s work (he is 30 years older than Czajkowski) is partially inspired by his reading the Savage novels during their original magazine appearances.

The present book also borrows a trick from the late Robert Ludlum, beginning with incidents that take place near Breslau, Poland, in 1945. Some sort of top secret Nazi experiment is interrupted by the end of the war, leaving many questions unanswered, but also leaving behind a development in human genetics which could produce either miracles or monsters.

This story is mainly about the monsters.

Warmed over Nazis as plot devices can be very boring, but Rollins has managed to keep it from being so.

After the prologue we begin again in the Himalayas, where Dr. Lisa Cummings is suddenly recruited from the expedition she is accompanying to help deal with a mysterious illness which has afflicted a remote monastery. Arriving there by helicopter she finds that something has turned a community of peace-loving monks into bloody killers. They have wiped each other out, or committed suicide; it’s not quite clear which. In the whole community there is one living survivor and he is Painter Crowe, one of the Sigma team, who had come at the request of his friend, the head Lama.

Cummings and Crowe are isolated when their chopper and the others with them are all killed by a mysterious sniper who seems to be a superhuman. Later they are captured and learn where he came from, that his apparent brutality is in fact, a kind of mercy killing.

Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, Commander Grayson Pierce is on an undercover mission involving an auction of some rare books. He finds himself involved in the destruction of a rare book shop, and in charge of protecting the only survivor of that event. They are pursued by a mysterious team of nearly albino brothers and sisters, who bear some resemblance to the Himalayan assassin.

Back in Washington another Sigma operative named Monk (and this is where I should have caught on, because this is the same name as one of Doc Savage’s operatives) is contemplating his impending fatherhood, Both he and his significant other are concerned about bringing a child into the somewhat dangerous lives they lead. They will be drawn in still further at events as both ends of the world converge.

Where they converge is in South Africa, where we meet game warden Khamisi Taylor and Dr. Marcia Fairfield. Their encounter with a strangely intelligent, particularly vicious predator near a game sanctuary is something of a clue as to how this story will play out.

So you see that we have at least four groups of people that we have to follow, which means four sets of cliffhangers to keep being frustrated by until most of them come together later in the story. It’s an effective way to keep you turning the pages, but I almost felt overrun by the pace of events, and I did have to turn back from time to time to keep the cast straight.

This is the third of the Sigma books, the latest to be out in paperback. There is another in hardcover right now, and the author’s website announces another title on the way. He has been very busy, As Rollins he has six in this series, plus half a dozen stand-alone thrillers and the novelization of the last Indiana Jones movie.

He also uses the pen name James Clemens, under which he writes two fantasy series which I have yet to see myself.

He’s been doing a book or two a year since 1998 and was a veterinarian in California until a few years ago. This is the first one of his books to catch my attention, but I can easily see myself reading more of them.