Book Review: Altar of Eden

My copy of the book.

When I was in my teens, I had a cadre of favorite authors I’d return to, and there was a cadre within the cadre I tended to lump into my head: Dan Brown, Steve Berry, and James Rollins. In my mind, they tended to cover the same sort of fictional subgenre: globe-trotting action-thrillers that had some sort of historical conspiracy afoot, with a bit of science fiction intrigue. In particular with Rollins, I was a huge fan of his Sigma Force series, although I’ve fallen far behind on that series. But I’m also laughing to myself right now because I didn’t realize James Rollins was a pen name, and his actual name is James Czajkowski. It’s unfortunate, in a way, that they feel like they have to change their name to be more “presentable” in the publishing world!

Nonetheless, I’ve returned to Rollins, albeit not the Sigma Force series, but something more in the realm of fantasy/science fiction, 2010’s, Altar of Eden. In fact, I would argue this book owes a great deal of influence from Michael Crichton. I think Crichton, who is also among that aforementioned cadre of favorite authors, would have appreciated this one.

Because basically, what if you did a story in the vein of Jurassic Park, but instead of a preserve of dinosaurs, it’s an island of hominids, the first modern humans, caveman/ape-like in appearance, and they also had some gnarly saber-tooth tigers? Oh, and they all have a hive mind intelligence? That’s Altar of Eden, essentially. We even have the unlikely protagonist. In Jurassic Park, the protagonist is a paleontologist (which makes sense for dinosaurs, but unlikely in the sense of an action-adventure protagonist), and here, the protagonist is a veterinarian. That’s because Czajkowski is himself a veterinarian, and he explained that he always wanted to do a story with one as a protagonist.

The veterinarian in this story is Lorna Polk, who works with saving near extinct animals through cryogenics at a placed called ACRES, the Audubon Center for the Research of Endangered Species, which is actually a real place under the Audubon Nature Institute’s conservation program, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

That’s the other thing; I just finished and reviewed the book, Forty Words for Sorrow, and lavished praise on its Canadian setting. Well, one of my sweet spots for a setting in a book is New Orleans, and in particular, the swamps! I love it. Don’t mess with the Cajuns, or alligators named Elvis (I’m shocked we didn’t get a giant alligator versus saber-tooth tiger fight, Rollins).

Anyhow, the Babylon Project, which has created these “exotic animals,” is run by a private corporation who makes Blackwater look like a Boy Scout troop, where they take advantage of the war in Iraq in 2003 to steal a virus from the Baghdad Zoo, and it is this virus that they hope will create not only modified (super) humans, but importantly, the most cohesive military unit every devised. That’s because of this idea of fractals binding all living creatures, including humans, and if you can hone in on it a certain way, think of the POWER! One way Rollins explains it, in short, is like if you could harness to a greater extent whatever the heck explains a flock of birds, and how they synchronize their migratory patterns.

The problem, though, is that while the virus can push this leap forward, it also has an evolutionary throwback, i.e., creating these saber-tooth tigers and hominids. And it makes them particularly violent. So, the researchers are trying to literally breed both the violence and this evolutionary throwback out of the hominids. Of course, I think one of their fatal, obvious flaws is that they separate the adult hominids from their offspring in order to keep this second generation “pure.” The flaw is that you can’t separate someone from their babies! That spells the people behind the Babylon Project’s downfall later.

All of this kicks off when a fishing trawler carrying some of these exotic caged animals ends up on Polk’s doorstep, and one of the animals, an inordinately ginormous saber-tooth tiger, escapes, heading to an alligator farm where Boy Scouts are visiting.

Polk is not alone in being our protagonist. She’s knowledgeable of course with the science parts to help us layman readers, but she’s also resourceful when it comes to outflanking and out maneuvering the Babylon Project’s mercenaries who come after her and ACRES; she killed three of them by herself! In one memorable, wild kill she uses liquid nitrogen to take down a mercenary by splashing it in his face like you would scalding hot coffee (well, not that I’ve ever done that!), but instead of burns, the liquid nitrogen literally melts this guy’s EYES out of his skull. Ouch.

But still, she needs more muscle and guns and resources to take on the people behind the Babylon Project, so enter Jack Menard, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, who also has a Marine background, and a background with Polk — 10 or so years ago, she was dating his younger brother, and when she went to drive him home due to him being drunk, the local sheriff’s son tried to rape her, but Jack saved her; when she escaped with the younger brother, they crashed and he died — and is the ultimate soldier, even without any (super) enhancements. Granted, given my disdain for the Border Patrol, I groaned when I saw his title, but a.) I didn’t actually realize that the Border Patrol operates in New Orleans, but ostensibly, they stop terrorists and smugglers trying to use the bayous to get into the U.S., so that’s why he also gets entangled in this mess, so it was a logical setup; and b.) he’s a great character still! I’m a sucker for bad-ass heroics.

The only criticism I’d have of the novel is that Rollins shoehorns a love affair between Lorna and Jack, to where at the end, he actually proposes to her. I don’t think the story needed that budding romance to work!

Anyhow, I love fiction that makes me think, that takes what is true (fractals, ACRES, Blackwater-like private contractors being unethical, genetics (“junk DNA,” which I’m fascinated by and will go down a rabbit hole with that at some point), the workings of the brain) and extrapolates that into an adventure-thriller, and if you set it in New Orleans? That all means I read a 474-page book in two days. The book, even though it is steeped in the exposition that indicates Rollins nerded out on these real-life topics, is a quick page-turner because it has three big (and long!) action set pieces: Polk and Menard tracking the escaped saber-tooth tigers to the alligator farm; the Babylon Project mercenaries attacking the ACRES facility to regain the exotic animals (and kidnap Polk to see what she’s learned); and the Menard-led Polk rescue mission to infiltrate the island known as Lost Eden Cay (today I learned, cay is a word for island), hence the “altar of Eden” title (as well as the “throwback” to creating Adam and Eve through the hominids, essentially).

If you’re someone into Crichton’s books, with globe-trotting action-adventure science fiction, then I think you’d love Rollins’, Altar of Eden. It also, I must add as a closing aside, made me want a parrot. There’s a modified parrot in here, Igor (good naming), who can recite hundreds of numbers in the mathematical pi sequence, but he also just seems really sweet! Good boy.

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