Book Review: Crucible by James Rollins
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 14 of Sigma Force
Publisher: William Morrow (January 22, 2019)
Length: 480 pages
James Rollins is one of those authors who has been on the periphery of my attention for a while now, and so when I was offered a chance to review his newest Sigma Force novel, I decided to give it a try. Although Crucible is the fourteenth installment of the series and I usually balk at the idea of starting anywhere other than the beginning, I was reassured when I learned that book can be enjoyed as a standalone.
At the University of Coimbra in Portugal, the first test of an advanced artificial intelligence program is abruptly halted when the laboratory in which the experiment is taking place is invaded by a group of armed cultists. All the scientists in the room were slaughtered except for a young researcher named Mara, who had been the one to develop the powerful AI known as Eve. Frightened and alone, Mara has no idea why her lab was targeted, but knows that whoever the attackers are, they will stop at nothing until she and her creation are destroyed.
Meanwhile, in Silver Spring, Maryland, Commander Gray Pierce and his friend Monk of Sigma Force return home after a night out on Christmas Eve to find a horrific sight. Gray’s house has been ransacked, and his pregnant girlfriend Seichan is missing. Monk’s wife Kat is found unconscious on the kitchen floor with a serious head wound, and the couple’s young daughters are also gone, stolen away by whoever took Seichan. These mysterious kidnappers seem to believe that Sigma Force is linked to the massacre at the University of Coimbra, leading Gray and Monk to travel to Europe to investigate the possible connection and to try to get their loved ones back. Unfortunately, while Kat may be able to glean some information about their enemies, her injuries have put her into a comatose state. Knowing that his wife would do anything to save their girls, Monk agrees for her to be moved to a state-of-the-art MRI suite at the Princeton Medical Center, where Sigma Force members Lisa Cummings and Painter Crowe endeavor to work round the clock with the neurologists there to unlock the answers in Kat’s brain using cutting edge technology.
As a first-timer to Rollins, the best way I can describe Crucible is a techno-thriller and special ops action/adventure hybrid that blurs the lines between science fiction and reality, somewhat in a similar vein as Michael Crichton or Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. The main thrust behind this novel is the idea that a super artificial intelligence would eventually achieve self-awareness and one of its first orders of business would be protect itself against any kind of intervention from its human creators. However, the fear that a global catastrophe or even human extinction might occur if this happened has not halted the advancements in the AI field, which continue to be developed at an alarming pace.
In Crucible, Mara is the brilliant scientist who created Eve as an AI that would learn, evolve, and grow with empathy—presumably so that it would rethink going all Terminator on us if the program ever broke free from human control. But to the main baddies of this story, who are like the modern incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition, Mara and others like her who mess with the natural order of the world must be purged, as instructed in their venerated treatise, the Malleus Maleficarum, or the “Hammer of Witches”. To my surprise, while inundating us with details of high-tech gadgetry and complex scientific theory, the plot also includes elements that take us back to the seventeenth century for answers buried in the past.
Needless to say, there was a lot going on. Since this was also my first Sigma Force novel, I have no idea if this is standard for these books, but there were times where I felt completely overwhelmed with all the people, places, and things to keep track of. You had Mara on the run with her AI program. Kat in the neurology lab going through the most advanced and experimental neurological treatments. Seichan and the girls trying to stay alive in their kidnappers’ custody. Gray and Monk running all over Europe chasing down the clues to get their family members back. The main antagonists and their connection to secret society tracing back to Medieval Spain. Towards the end, Rollins even threw in some quantum physics and time travel for good measure, which I felt was a bit much. But again, this might be par for the course with these books, and for all I know, Crucible is simply serving up more of what fans want.
To its credit though, this book can indeed be enjoyed as a standalone despite the challenges of keeping up with all its moving parts. I felt only slightly disadvantaged when it came to not knowing the characters’ histories, and while I had some problems relating to their motivations and decisions, there was enough background information provided to make me at least understand. In a way, not being familiar with the characters also meant not being able to predict their behavior and actions, which might have actually increased the level of suspense and my enjoyment.
Overall, Crucible was wildly exhilarating, and as a reader coming to James Rollins for the first time, I also found his writing to be wonderfully readable and addictive. I also enjoyed his author’s note at the end describing all the topics he touched upon, revealing how there’s perhaps a lot more truth than fiction in many of the things he writes about. If this is the caliber of action, thrills and suspense I can expect from a Sigma Force novel, then I definitely wouldn’t mind reading another one after this.