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Review: The Devil Colony, James Rollins

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 25, 2011

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!



28 Comments »

  1. you never know where autographing your copy of a book will lead. My favorite book in recent years, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,’ began with that premise.

    Comment by charlene — July 25, 2011 @ 8:27 am

  2. That John Smith error is curious. My daughter’s American history textbook had the same error, and she mentioned it to her teacher who contacted the publisher. The publisher replied that the author had it on very good authority that the founder of Mormonism was John Smith. Go figure.

    Thanks for the review. I’ve never been much of one for conspiracy lit, never bothered to read The Da Vinci Code, but perhaps I’ll pick this up if I see it at the library. Then again, I might just continue working through Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

    Comment by Researcher — July 25, 2011 @ 9:04 am

  3. Hohenwald, Tennessee!!!? Really? There hasn’t been any action there for over 125 years.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 25, 2011 @ 9:20 am

  4. charlene, sounds like a book I need to look up, based on its title alone!

    Very good [evidently uncited] authority, huh? This is a twist on the meme that Joseph’s name would be had for good and ill among all men. What difference does good or ill make if they can’t even get the name right?

    Bruce, if you see a backhoe in Hohenwald after dark, don’t follow it. Please. That’s all I can tell you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 25, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  5. Thanks, Ardis. You must be right about the Mormon history blog blanket.

    Comment by WVS — July 25, 2011 @ 10:40 am

  6. Really interesting, Ardis. This book showed up on an email with new releases from Barnes & Noble for the Nook, and I saw the bit about native Americans and the gold plates, and just about ordered it. I’ve read one or two other things by James Rollins, and they are okay in a kind of big summer blockbuster movie kind of way, lots of action, a little light on characterization, and big, big spectacle. Now I suspect that I really will pick this up. But John Smith, really? You’ve got to do better than that.

    As to The Duh Vinci Code, I’ve read that and a few other books by Dan Brown, and he really comes across as a poor writer, a real hack, who has learned to use really sensational plot and storylines to draw attention to his work. Two or three of his other, earlier books, were even more implausible, and practically unreadable.

    Glad you chose to review this. I’m pretty sure that this review seals the deal, and I am putting this on my acquisitions list, budget allowing.

    Comment by kevinf — July 25, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  7. I’ll add this my library list, if only for the entertainment value to my wife when I yell out “John Smith?!?” when I see it in the text.

    (A textbook my son had in a comparative religion course taught at Eastern Michigan Univeristy a few years back attributed “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become” to the Book of Mormon. What passes for scholarship these days??)

    And Adris, if you really haven’t read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I’d recommend it.

    Comment by Paul — July 25, 2011 @ 11:24 am

  8. Okay, charlene and Paul, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has just been delivered to my Kindle.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 25, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  9. Love your sense of humor and sense of adventure. I’d rather read your post again than the book. ;-)

    Comment by Brian Duffin — July 25, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

  10. I’m with Brian.

    Comment by Grant — July 25, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

  11. Great post/review! This one was under my radar, but looks like one I’d like to read.

    Comment by Steve — July 26, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  12. I ran across this 2003 Deseret News article about a then-current issue of Newsweek that featured the Church along with the headline (shown in the linked article): “IN JOHN SMITH’S STEPS.”

    I hoped it might name some reference book that journalists rely on for factoids like that, which might be the source of this apparently widespread error, but it doesn’t.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2011 @ 10:51 am

  13. I saw this book at the library last night and grabbed it. I’m not sure if I’m going to read it solely because Ardis did, or because of the train-wreck potential. Either way, I plan on wasting some of the precious time I have been allotted this weekend reading it.

    Besides, I am curious to know what Joesph’s uncle John has to do with any of this.

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — July 27, 2011 @ 8:04 am

  14. Bought this last night, and got about two or three chapters in. Just so you know, we already have white Lamanite mummies, (think Zelph, but in a Masada sort of context), Thomas Jefferson, gold plates, and Hank Kanosh, Mormon BYU professor whose Shoshone ancestors apparently all (ALL!) joined the church after the Bear River Massacre. That inadvertently makes Colonel Patrick Conner one of the church’s most successful missionaries, dispensing bullets instead of Books of Mormon.

    But if you can get past all that, as Ardis indicated, it’s an action story, and it comes fast and furious, at least in the first 40 pages. Popcorn, anyone?

    Comment by kevinf — July 27, 2011 @ 10:00 am

  15. Loved this line: “[R]eaders 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.”

    Still, I’ll likely give it a try. I like me a cheap action novel from time to time.

    Comment by David Y. — July 27, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  16. So I became curious about this book initially when I noticed the masonic compass and square on the cover. So naturally I read the inside cover synopsis and was surprised to find Native Americans and gold plates mentioned. Then I came here after googling around about the book. I’m always interested in what people say about Mormons though, I guess for the same reason I’m curious about what people think of Utah when they come here. But now that I know the Mormon connection I don’t know if I care to read the book.

    Comment by A Brown — July 28, 2011 @ 1:18 am

  17. The publisher replied that the author had it on very good authority that the founder of Mormonism was John Smith. Go figure.

    While browsing on amazon.com several years ago for Mormon-related books, I came across a listing for a forthcoming reprint of the Book of Mormon by Nuvision Publications. The cover shown in the listing featured a color portrait of none other than Captain John Smith (of Jamestown fame).

    I emailed Nuvision to let them know that there was a small problem with the cover. I never heard back, but when the reprint was released, the cover featured the Hill Cumorah painting by C.C.A. Christensen.

    Comment by Justin — July 29, 2011 @ 8:00 am

  18. Hilarious! And pathetic.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2011 @ 8:08 am

  19. I just finished the process of donating the book to the library. It has to be about the most embarrassing experience I’ve had here lately, trying to explain to the sweet senior missionary why I was donating an action adventure novel to the Church History Library.

    When she asked what I wanted done with the book if the library decided not to accession it, I told her to hand it to any employee who likes thrillers and to send it home with him for a good weekend read.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  20. Ardis, that must have been fun. Actually, the ebook copy I had on my ereader must have been edited, as I never encountered the John Smith reference.

    Overall, I liked the book for all of the reasons you mentioned. Lots of action, suspense, and a quick pace. I will admit that some of the plot seems a bit contrived, and not everything made sense, but it was a novel, so I made allowances.

    As to the treatment of the church, I will say that I found it actually uniformly respectable, if not always accurate. The closing scene with Hank Kanosh and his contribution to the, uh, SPOILER ALERT, Repository of Sacred Not Secret Stuff, was a bit weird. It sounds like he may have gotten a better reception for his donation than you did at the CHL. I overall would give this book a B- rating, fun but not a must read, and not embarrassing like some of the Dan Brown stuff.

    Comment by kevinf — August 10, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  21. Honest, my copy *did* say “John Smith”!! Glad to know it was caught at some point and edited, though. Also glad that you enjoyed the book, for what it was. And I agree with your assessment — I never felt mocked, and Hank was certainly respected as a character.

    Nice to have this feedback after a couple of weeks, Kevin.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

  22. Ha — my request for the audio book just came through at the library and I picked it up yesterday. I read the description on the back of the case and am wondering if I’ll actually make it through. The first two chapters are on my iPod, so here we go, I guess.

    I’ll listen for references to John vs. Joseph Smith.

    Comment by David Y. — August 11, 2011 @ 9:12 am

  23. He, he — If you like this genre, this is a really good example and you’ll like this book. It’s full of all the elements of a good action-adventure/thriller, with the bonus of the Mormon stuff that is, as kevinf and I agree, generally well done, nits and that last scene aside.

    Anyway, leave a note when you’ve finished to let us know what you thought.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  24. I’m slow on my own reading but I received a copy as well. Glad to see your review.

    Comment by Michelle — August 16, 2011 @ 2:26 am

  25. Listened to the book on CD. Thought the “John Smith” was a reader’s error. James Rollins has a close resemblance to my Great-Great-Grandfather, James Henry Rollins. Think he should do some “Mormon” family research.

    Comment by Jennifer — August 25, 2011 @ 8:00 am

  26. .

    I’m sorry I missed this review before I wrote my own. And you’re right: it’s curious how opposite our responses were.

    Comment by Th. — November 15, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  27. Theric reviewed the book today at A Motley Vision — our reviews are virtual mirror images.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 15, 2011 @ 10:45 am

  28. .

    My favorite thing: that both 26 and 27 are true even while seeming to claim the opposite.

    Comment by Th. — November 15, 2011 @ 10:57 am

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