James Rollins. The Devil Colony. New York: William Morrow, 2010. 480 p. ISBN 9780061784781. $27.99. ($14.99 at Amazon.com; $12.99 for Kindle edition)
A publicist for HarperCollins (parent company of William Morrow) contacted me recently offering me a copy of The Devil Colony in return for a review here on Keepa. I didn’t ask how she found me; you’ll probably be as puzzled as I was as to why she thought Keepa would be a suitable venue for a book like this. Perhaps it was nothing more than a result of Googling something like “Mormon history blog.”
In any case, the publicist is interested in reaching a Mormon audience. Her email to me offered a couple of pieces of Mormon bait:
“James Rollins was recently on Glenn Beck to discuss the book and its link to Mormonism.”
Uh-huh. Although we don’t often get into politics here (thank you all very much for your cooperation on that), you can probably guess how enticing it was for me to hear that I would be traveling in the wake of Glenn Beck. Still, I’m enough of a sport to include the link to that segment of his broadcast if you’re interested. I haven’t listened to it.
Another bit of Mormon bait from the email: “A local Salt Lake City tv producer recently told me that, ‘The Devil Colony will do for Mormons what The Da Vinci Code did for Catholics.’” Holy heck. Now we’re talking! The Da Vinci Code was such a masterpiece of scholarship, so flattering to the Catholic church and all it stands for, that I should rush right in and abet some novelist in doing the same thing to my own people!
Yeah, that’s strike two.
Strike three could have been this: “There is no denying that this book will stir some questions about Mormonism and its ties to the founding of America.” Because you’ve probably also picked up, here and there, my feelings concerning conspiracy theories of all kinds. Say it with me, all together now: “Provenance, people, provenance!”
But the publicist had one more wiggly worm dangling from her hook, and it had enough life in it for me to bite: “[H]is latest book has taken an interesting turn after he was witness to a heated discussion between two of his LDS friends discussing the idea that Native Americans were descendants of Israel.”
So I agreed to review it, the book came Friday, and I’ve spent most of Saturday reading it. Right there you should find an endorsement of some kind for The Devil Colony: I was so bored by The Da Vinci Code that I went to bed leaving the last 22 pages unread. I simply didn’t care how that one ended. But even though The Devil Colony is not my kind of book, not my usual read, I hardly put this one down until all 480 pages were read – as silly as it was, really, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. And not in a morbid, watching-a-train-wreck way, either. I genuinely wanted to know what the team would find when they entered that last subterranean passage, and whether any of them would make it home alive.
No spoilers ahead, I promise.
The Devil Colony is the latest in a series (of which I had been unaware until now), about the members of Sigma Force, a secret American unit that is part military, part counterintelligence, part scientific. Their nemesis is another secret organization known as The Guild, a family-based conspiracy stretching back centuries, if not millennia, whose upper-upper-upper-crust is known as the True Bloodline. Because this is the latest installment in a series, I suspect that readers of the earlier volumes know more about The Guild and the True Bloodline than I was able to pick up from this single novel, but that didn’t interfere with my understanding of the action in this novel.
And “action” is the keyword. This novel is not so much in the pattern of The Da Vinci Code as it is in the pattern of the Indiana Jones franchise (I wasn’t surprised to discover that James Rollins wrote the novelization of one of the Indiana Jones movies). In fact, Solomon’s Temple and the Ark of the Covenant make guest appearances here, but without seeming at all derivative of Raiders.
Like Indiana, the members of Sigma Force pursue ancient clues from lost civilizations, darting here and there around North America and beyond, dealing with volcanoes and explosions and collapsing tunnels and gold – lots of gold – and bad guys with all the latest weapons. No whips, though. And no snakes. Unless you count the traitors, members of The Guild who have infiltrated every part of American society and government to the point where nobody but Sigma Force members can be trusted … and perhaps not always all of them.
The action is set in Washington and Kentucky and various points in Utah and Arizona and Iceland and France and Japan and Nashville and Yellowstone and Fort Knox. (Memo to Amateur Mormon Historian: Even Hohenwald, Tennessee plays a starring role.) Sometimes you’re up in aircraft; other times you’re speeding through the desert on ATVs; one minute you’re deep in the earth exploring volcanic tubes; the next you’re fighting your way to the surface of the ocean surrounded by orcas. If it weren’t for the datelines heading each section, you’d quickly lose track of where in the world you were, and how much longer you had before human civilization is destroyed. And that, of course, is largely the fun of a novel like this – it has a kind of internal logic, and if you just surrender yourself to the lunacy of it all, it’s a riot.
The Mormon element of the novel is significant to the plot but occupies relatively little ink. The Guild, which arrived in America in early colonial days, is pursuing lost scientific knowledge once held, and perhaps recorded – and perhaps still existing in secret, protected locations – by ancient inhabitants of North America. These people were all destroyed in a cataclysmic battle waged with the ancestors of the present Native Americans. These people, recalled in mysterious clues surviving from the distant past, were pale Indians, who came from a land far to the east, and who recorded their knowledge in a script that seems vaguely Hebraic but with Egyptian overtones, on sheets of gold.
Beginning to see where Mormonism comes in, are you? Readers get their introduction to Mormonism through the character of Hank Kanosh, a member of the Shoshone tribe, whose ancestors survived the Bear River Massacre and became Mormons. Kanosh is a professor at Brigham Young University, and is called to help investigate the discovery of Native artifacts and mummies in a cave near Roosevelt, Utah. What he finds there unleashes terrible events; he is introduced to the members of Sigma Force; he recognizes a connection in his religious history to the ancient history being discussed by Sigma Force; and he explains to them the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon. And we’re off to the races from that point on.
Publicity blurbs frequently mention the author’s meticulous research. I’ll have to take their word for his research on geology, geography, and science (I learned more about neutrinos and nanotechnology – if I can trust a fictional account, where science may have been bent to serve the needs of the story – than I’ve ever heard before). And it’s true there is a Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake, and CVS pharmacies, and the lobby of the Eyring Science Center at BYU is described accurately, although otherwise there is no real sense of place in the Salt Lake/Provo settings. He even gets it right that the descendants of Lehi were from the tribe of Manasseh.
But meticulous research? Couldn’t he have had one of his Mormon buddies read his manuscript? Even the most lowly of fact checkers at HarperCollins should have been able to catch the repeated use of “John Smith” as the name of the translator of the Book of Mormon. (They did correct it to “Joseph” in one place, but left four occurrence of “John” intact.) And somebody should have corrected the designation of Hank Kanosh’s membership in the “Church of the Latter-Day Saints.” I’m afraid that such shoddy research and proofreading pulled me out of the story and made me doubt the science, too – I know it’s just fiction, but readers have to be able to relax into the world of the novel in order to find it believable, and such obvious errors pulled this reader violently out of that world.
Even so, the Mormon element was generally okay, not played for yucks the way it usually is. I wish, though, that the author had omitted a scene in the closing pages of the novel, where a character presents himself at the Holy of Holies in the Salt Lake Temple. With all the rumors and deliberate misrepresentations of activities within the temple, I found that scene, so garishly inaccurate and unnecessary and misleading, to be more than mildly offensive. Hands off the temple, please.
Violence: Quite a bit of violence, some of it graphic, including some torture porn, but brief in each case. Language: One profanity every 60 pages or so. Sexual content: Extremely minor; includes repeated references to marital fidelity and the desire for a family life.
Recommendation: Not for your Relief Society book club, but if you like thrillers and action-adventure novels you’ll probably like this one. Even with the minor errors it’s fun to see Mormons and Mormonism worked into mainstream literature in a way that isn’t mocking. This book does not do to us what that other book did to Catholicism. I don’t regret having spent a day on it, although a little of this genre goes a long way with me. I might read other Sigma Force novels if they came my way, maybe even hunt them out.
And finally, since I’m not apt to read this again and am fighting against the insane multiplication of books in my small space, I’ll be donating my review copy to the Church History Library later this week. It’ll be a weird addition to their collection and they might decide not to keep it, but in 50 years it may be just as interesting to students of Mormonism as I find the novels of the 20th century to be today. Besides, I always autograph the books I donate, and it’s fun to imagine someone discovering my signature in a few generations and wondering what in tarnation I was doing with a book like this in my library!