The Judas Strain

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

The Judas Strain

by James Rollins

William Morrow, HK$208

James Rollins, whose 1999 novel Excavation featured an archae-ologist discovering a lost Inca city that contained both fabulous treasures and a curse, is today's Indiana Jones of action-adventure fiction. It's not hard to imagine Rollins at work - pecking away at his keyboard wearing a fedora nudged to a jaunty angle as he gets to the threshold of the denouement, while around him lie scattered notes and artefacts from his latest adventures.

In his seven best-selling novels written since the turn of the millennium, the Californian has taken his increasingly hyperkinetic imagination, outlandish storylines and dodgy science what-ifs to the Arabian Desert, Rome, the Vatican, and the Rhine Valley.

The Judas Strain has the usual two-dimensional characters solving millennia-old mysteries, cheating death and saving the world in, among other locales, Christmas Island, Angkor Wat, Istanbul and Venice. The intrepid Rollins - a cave explorer and scuba-diver when he's not writing - has done his homework, making research trips to most of the locations.

As a result, much of what may seem implausible is loosely fact-based (he expands on the facts and their varying veracities in a highly absorbing author's note at the end of the book).

The riddle that begins The Judas Strain is a brilliant opening premise: what killed most of the mariners onboard Marco Polo's vessels as he sailed home from China, where the Venetian explorer had spent almost two decades? Kublai Khan had granted Marco Polo 14 ships and more than 600 men to escort him back to the west, but only two ships and 18 men made it.

The Venetian hinted at some tragedy in his incredible travelogue Il Milione - too incredible for many serious doubters over the centuries - but he refused to fill in the blanks even on his deathbed. And so Rollins steps in.

After an arresting opening scene in which Marco Polo and his father, beached on some tropical island, wonder what hit them and their men, the action jumps to the present-day and a group of luckless Australians on a yacht somewhere in the Pacific who sail into a nasty maritime plague. This brings the US Defence Department's uber-secret Sigma Force - 'killer scientists' - into the picture. Time for them to save the world again - for the fourth time, after Sandstorm (Queen of Sheba techno-thriller), Map of Bones (Da Vinci Code-style riddle) and last year's Black Order (Nazi mysticism shenanigans).

The Judas Strain is graphic, especially when a cruise ship full of mystery-plague victims is hijacked. Why would anyone want to do that? To capture infected subjects in order to obtain a biological weapon of mass destruction, of course.

Nevertheless, Rollins succeeds in keeping the action moving at a breakneck pace, and maintains the novel's chilling suspense right up to the cinematic showdown amid Angkor ruins. It's a mind-blowing narrative breathlessly told, within the limitations of the genre.

One-line paragraphs pepper every page, giving The Judas Strain a comic-book feel. But Rollins manages to insert just enough credible science into the mix.

If there's a message in The Judas Strain, it's a topical one. 'Keep in mind, we still don't know for sure what killed the dinosaurs,' some wise guy says.

Global warming and other eco-issues are evidently much on Rollins' mind. But for the most part, he remains more Indiana Jones than Al Gore and for some thoroughly absorbing summer reading, you can't go far wrong with this wonderfully ridiculous yarn.