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It's no secret to readers of my reviews that I'm a huge fan of James Rollins' novels, and have been ever since Subterranean was first published. In the years since, in addition to penning the wildly popular Sigma Force series and several excellent stand alone thrillers, he has written seven fantasy novels under the name James Clemens as well as two young adult adventures. I love that he isn't content to write the same type of story over and over. Not only has he expanded his own literary horizons, he's very much expanded my own.
The Blood Gospel is yet another new direction for Mr. Rollins. Well, two new directions, actually. For the first time, he's sharing authoring responsibilities with Rebecca Cantrell, a writer well-respected for her own historic mystery series. And while The Blood Gospel is as much a fast-paced thriller as anything Mr. Rollins has written to date, it also falls firmly in the territory of a new genre: horror.
The novel opens with a brief prologue set in the past--AD 73 in Masada, Israel--where readers are witness to events leading to the tragedy for which the historic site is known. However, we are also witness to a far more inexplicable drama... After just a few pages, the action shifts to present-day Israel, at the dig of American archaeologist Erin Granger. Her own promising work is interrupted by an earthquake--and is further interrupted when Israeli and American soldiers arrive to escort her to Masada. The quake has unearthed something and her expertise is required. Along on the journey is a mysterious figure. "He was no soldier. He was a priest. He wore black pants, overhung by an ankle-length hooded cassock, along with black leather gloves, dark sunglasses, and the familiar white collar of the Roman Catholic clergy." You've just been introduced to Father Rhun Korza. He's not the first priest to appear in Rollins' fiction, but I'm telling you right now that he's the most interesting.
At Masada, this is what Erin finds:
"A macabre sculpture hung on the wall, like a blasphemous crucifixion. She moved past the corner of the sarcophagus. With each step, a growing horror rose in her.
It wasn't a sculpture.
On the wall hung the desiccated corpse of a small girl, maybe eight years old, dressed in a tattered, stained robe. A handful of blackened arrows pinned her in place, a good yard off the floor. They pierced her chest, neck, shoulder, and thigh."
What can I say? These authors can paint a tableau, and sometimes the details are haunting. I don't know if it was Mr. Rollins or Ms. Cantrell who supplied the detail of the doll, but that is the beauty of collaboration. It's hard to say who did what (I couldn't tell), but hopefully the work is stronger when two talents bring their a-game.
I'm not going into any detail about the plot of this novel. What I can tell you is that the third primary character is an American soldier named Jordan Stone. The novel is the first of the new "Order of the Sanguines" series. These three diverse characters find themselves on an urgent quest for an artifact called the Blood Gospel. "It is the Gospel. Written by Christ's own hand. In his own blood."
So, let's talk about religion. You may have heard, it's a hot-button topic for some. I'll be VERY curious to see the popular response to this novel. Me, I'm a secular Jew. I'm not going to lie. This got kind of New Testament for me. BUT this is not--emphatically-- Christian fiction. I wouldn't call it excessive, but there's foul language within the text. Even more noteworthy, there's some fairly steamy erotic content. (Well done, too!) So, this is NOT Christian fiction, but it has a fair amount of religion, some of which might be considered blasphemous by certain segments. Rollins tries to look at faith from different angles. At one point, Erin asks, "Why me?" and is told:
"I have followed your work, Dr. Granger. You are skeptical of religion, but steeped in biblical knowledge. As a result, you see things that nonreligious scholars could miss. Likewise, you question things that religious scholars might not. It was that rare combination that made you perfectly suited to bring the Gospel back to the world."
Suffice it to say, there is significant opposition to our heroes' quest. Some of it is worldly and some of it is otherworldly. There's a big word that I'm not saying, but it won't take you long to discover the supernatural elements to the tale. Readers have seen a lot of this in recent years, but James Rollins is putting his own twist on the familiar.
Mr. Rollins and Ms. Cantrell are off to a strong start with this series. This book introduces some truly intriguing characters with complex backgrounds and motivations. And it features a plot that surprised me at every turn. More importantly, there's a complete story arc to Book One, with a conclusion. That's not to say that there aren't bigger picture questions left unanswered for future books--and one flat-out jaw-dropper in the final chapter. (Seriously, DO NOT PEEK.) You've gotta love the jaw-dropper! Um, when is Book Two out?