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There’s a very fine line that exists between competent appeals to a reader’s fantasies or nightmares and ones full of affectation. The former is grounded in substance and reason; the latter is generally all flash, more like the prose equivalent of gratuitous CGI special effects. And the subject of human immortality — both from physical and philosophical standpoints — is certainly one that’s been written about enough to give us plenty of examples of both.
In this case, James Rollins does a relatively masterful job of staying on the conceptually solid side of the fence, while still telling a hell of good story. Bloodline, another installment in Rollins’ Sigma Force series, is an action-thriller that’s alternately straight-ahead and labyrinthine, packed evenly with discharged firearms and well-researched scientific details.
After a brief and intriguingly cryptic prologue set in the mid-12th century, in which we’re introduced to the novel’s two recurring themes — the keys to eternal life, and the secret society (or societies) looking for them — Rollins brings us back to the present day, and the kidnapping of the U.S. president’s pregnant daughter by Somali pirates off the eastern coast of Africa.
Commander Gray Pierce quickly takes over, leading his Sigma team on a rescue mission in Somalia, although orders to rescue the young woman leave him and his superiors feeling like there’s something much greater at work. On the way there, he and his unit pick up two new teammates — Captain Tucker Wayne, an ex-Army Ranger, and his dog (and combat partner) Kane — who, for many readers of Rollins’ series, are likely the characters that will really kick Bloodline up a notch on the novelistic scale of awesomeness.
Once the team is on African soil, we quickly find that things aren’t quite what they seem. The kidnapping plot, which is focused not on the president’s daughter but on her unborn son, leads Sigma down a winding road that includes battles with a rival covert agency, a centuries-old dynasty intent on changing the nature of humanity, and ultra-high-tech labs that have been hidden in order keep their horrifying experiments with DNA under wraps.
From there, Rollins fires impressively on all cylinders for longer than it might even seem possible to sustain. His real strength here is an ability to keep the pulse of tough guy (and equally tough girl) military action pumping, even while pausing to introduce provocative ideas about the intersection of cutting-edge science and morality. We also get to experience the conflict from virtually everyone’s point of view — Sigma soldiers, intelligence agents, bad guys, even Kane the dog — without the structure of the novel ever becoming bogged down those by perspective shifts.
I’ve seen a few people write that Bloodline is better read as a part of the Sigma Force series, as there are, of course, more than a few references and connections to past installments. But as someone who hasn’t read any of Rollins’ previous work, I can say that this one is engaging and challenging enough on its own terms, without overarching plot confusion ever becoming a problem.
As one of the novel’s genetic scientists boldly says amidst the action, there are already immortals walking among us today. It’s a pretty loaded statement, and one that Rollins has clearly had to think a great deal about. But he does, after all, force us to realize the truth behind what seems like nothing more than unbelievable hyperbole. You’ll have to read Bloodline to find out why.