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The Judas Strain 6 March 2010

Posted by The Inimitable M in Books, Reviews and Writing.
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Fantasy fiction isn’t my thing.  I prefer stories with settings and characters based in the real Earth-world, whether history or current times.  As a publisher, however, I try very hard to read outside my preference.  One of the reasons is because I receive probably one submission that isn’t fantasy to every ten that are.  This tells me that the world desperately wants to escape the economy, war and environmental issues for a few more years.  Tracking the historical trends of varous genres is similar to tracking environmtal history  in tree rings.  You can see it.  You just need a particular base of knowledge to understand it.

In the spirit of reading outside my little comfort zone, I decided to pick up James Rollins’ The Judas Strain during a January bargain sale on Barnes & Noble’s website.  It was a remainder, I think, priced at $1.99.  My basic knowledge of James Rollins is that he’s not that other Rollins, the one who died.  I hit a few of the reviews, and knowing he was a best-selling author, I opted to take a chance on this novel that seemed a bit more real than the usual fantasy fiction. 

“An ancient and deadly plague, the Judas Strain (which afflicted Marco Polo), has suddenly re-emerged.”  Publishers Weekly

“This time the group’s mission involves a devastating bacteriological plague, a mysterious cryptogram that may predate humanity, and the deadly truth about what happened after Marco Polo’s expedition to China.” American Library Association

The remaining reviews from both of these organisations touted fabulous breakneck speed and intrigue that I found fascinating, and they weren’t wrong.  It might be a book to capture you, as far as the story line and characters are concerned.

The story behind Marco Polo was spot-on.  From what I know of his return from China, Rollins did not deviate from historical record.  The science was fascinating, and certainly believable.  Rollins does have a background in veterinary medicine, which bears a striking resemblance in so many ways to human medicine.  He developed the Judas strain quite well.

I wasn’t interested in the Dan Brownish approach to intrigue, but the angel language was pretty darn cool.  The references were historically accurate until you got to Angkor, and I did have to remind myself this was fantasy, not reality, several times.  (I still grumbled a bit.)  The references were made correctly, however.  The speculation about its possible existence before the reference wasn’t a far stretch.  Still, I had difficulties with side stories and subplots that added nothing to the story.  At times, the pace of the story itself stumbled because of the subplots.

As a publisher and editor, I have pet peeves.  Rollins hit them all.  I asked myself more than once which pub table his agents and editor fell under as they drank through their reading of the manuscript.  If all the books in this series have the same issues, I would never have published any of them.  It appeared to me as if they just slapped a cover on the unedited manuscript and “let ‘er fly”.

While it is okay to use passive voice in some instances, 477 pages full of passive voice are unacceptable to our publishing house.  Equally unacceptable is the use of passive voice three or four times in the same sentence.  The latter was an unfortunate occurrence in every chapter, even if not on every page. 

An occasional sentence fragment, particularly when used in dialogue, is acceptable.  The sentence fragments in The Judas Strain, however, came at me as if shot from a scatter gun, starting on Page 1 and continuing, non-stop, through Page 477. 

The writer of the Fantasy Fiction Critic blog says, “…you’re starting to see another problem rise up in the form of rehashed ideas… not to mention the improbably quick manner in which puzzles are always solved.”  He also said, “… James Rollins’ books are not the most controversial or provocative reading material out there, and like any blockbuster film you probably won’t remember much of the novel after you’ve finished it.”

He was referring to the series in the first statement.  I found it to be true just in The Judas Strain.  The story line itself is sound.  The characters, while tedious at times, are believable.  Rollins’ research was thorough.  With some of the scenes, though, I had to stop reading and say, “Oh, c’mon.!”  Of course, I ranted about those transitions and pointed out to the absent Rollins that better transitions were available.

The Judas Strain is the first book that I disliked from Page 1 and didn’t throw in the Goodwill pile after Page 10.  Finishing it was rough.  The experience was akin to cleaning a beautiful black sweater covered in clumps and spikes of white Angora cat hair.  The story’s in there.  To find it, however, was a Herculean feat for someone like me.   Of course, I do realise the general reading public isn’t quite as picky.  After all, the Twilight series is out there, and people love it.



1. aardvarkian - 6 March 2010

I am not inspired to read Black Order, and I have you to thank for that. Wheelie bin, here I come.

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