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Book Review: Sandstorm by James Rollins

Title: Sandstorm

Author: James Rollims

Publisher: Harper

Publication Date: April 26, 2011

Genres: Adventure

Shelves: Female-fronted

A solid thriller full of action, adventure, history, and mystery, Sandstorm thoroughly entertained me from start to finish. Yes, it’s predictable and clichéd, and it drops a few plot threads along the way, but it has a host of kick-ass women at the forefront (most good, one bad), it offers up some plausible scientific explanations for Biblical miracles, and it does a fun job of treasure hunting across the Arabian desert.

If I had to sum up James Rollins’ first Sigma Force adventure, I would describe it as Indiana Jones, with a touch of Michael Crichton, by way of Tom Clancy. There’s a lot going one here, backstory and mythology being established alongside the plot, and more than enough character depth to help keep the read engaging. It was my idle time read for a few weeks, that book I looked to when I only had time for a chapter or two, but I ended up sprawled out on the couch after my Sunday hike and devoured the second half.

Safia al-Maaz is the primary draw here, a woman who seems to spend far too much time serving as the damsel-in-distress, except she’s a clever young woman, as morally responsible as she is courageous, and she is never reduced to victim. She also spends a good chunk of the book at the pinnacle of a love-triangle, but it works because it echoes the ways in she wavers between comfort and security, past and present, education and exploration. As we learn in the last quarter of the book, she is also more than she seems (or knows), and her connection to the matriarchal, all-female tribe of the desert is what really puts this over the top.

Cassandra Sanchez, the traitorous Sigma Force operative who serves as the books primary villain is a fantastic character as well, an incredibly strong woman – physically and psychologically – who is more than a suitable foil for the heroes. In less talented hands she could have been a cartoon caricature, a scene-chewing femme fatale with a chip on her shoulder, but Rollins portrays her as a woman influenced by revenge, no doubt, but drive by the desire to succeed at all costs. There is some vulnerability to her, questions as to her true motives throughout, and that’s what kept her almost admirable (if not necessarily likeable).

The action here is non-stop, and nothing is sacred when it comes to the natural disasters and explosions. Museums get torched, sacred sites blown up, and (as is par for the course with these kinds of novels) earth-shattering secrets annihilated without being properly documented. There are some beautiful set pieces, from tiny desert shrines to the massive glass-filled caverns beneath the sands, and they’re contrasted by the high technology of desert bikes, helicopter sleds, armored transports, and laser-fueled excavation equipment.

Sandstorm is absolutely silly and over-the-top at times, and more than once I wanted to scream at the archaeologists for looting rather than excavating, for never taking a photo much less making a sketch or rubbing of the artifacts, but when world is at stake, I guess the end justifies the means. All minor flaws or nitpicking aside, this was a pure popcorn read that was smarter that I was prepared to give it credit for, and more plausible than I expected given the whole Virgin Mary theme.

Sadly, aside from establishing Painter Crowe as the primary character for the Sigma Force tales that follow, this seems to be the only outing for Safia, Kara, Carol, Omaha, and the rest, which is a shame. Omaha could carry a novel all on his own, and I’m rather surprised Carol doesn’t get to follow Painter through the saga.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

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