Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
Author: Wheler Bradford
The author calls this an archaeological mystery thriller. That pretty much sums it up: there are two intertwined stories here, one about archaeology, the other an international spy mystery/thriller. The author did a lot a research for both stories, but probably more for the first.
Fewer words are dedicated to the second story. I was well into the book (around Chapter 15 or so) when it became clear what was going on. The Chinese lost some damning space debris, and they’re willing to spy on the scientific expedition to see if the archaeologists come across it. (Mongolia is in a vise between Russian and China.) How far they will go makes this story that builds up to a climax involving an international cast. (Even before the climax, an Israeli physicist is involved.) In today’s geopolitics, you can imagine something like this happening. With elaboration, it could be the main story.
The archaeological story contains many elements: convincing reluctant authorities in a third-world country to cooperate in a scientific mission; dealing with poachers and cave or tomb raiders who can destroy archaeological sites; obtaining help from locals with pride in their heritage and energy for discovery of the same; and facing the remoteness of some sites that makes it difficult to mount a scientific expedition. In the process, we learn a lot about Mongolia, its people, and their traditions, so much that at times the book seems more like a well-written travelogue. I always thought of Mongolia as a remote, cold place, but Ulaanbaatar, the capital, has temperature variations like Fairbanks, Alaska. The country is so large that it contains many different ethnic groups. How science is aiding archaeology is also fascinating and probably one reason the Israeli physicist Uri is so interested in the expedition (there are others).
Cornell professors Rob and Abbey lead that scientific expedition. They had another successful one in Peru with the same Canadian-based sponsor, but the author indicates this one is different (there’s a bit of omniscient POV future-predicting all through this first story that’s questionable). It is, and Rob is often questioning how it’s going and the scientific validity of what he’s doing. They have to make up a plan to sell the expedition to the Mongolian minister and satisfy the sponsor, for example, one that Rob realizes is a bit of snake-oil salesmanship. But money talks in Mongolia too as the sponsor and Rob spread around the ten-million-dollar grant. Archaeology wins out in the long run, but I won’t offer any spoilers here.
Combining these two stories is a daunting challenge. The author’s solution worked for me because I’m interested in the science. Other readers might find that emphasis a problem. Two books to compare this one with are Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Weir’s The Martian. The first can become boring by dwelling on undersea flora and fauna; the second can do the same by spending too much time on growing potatoes in human excrement, for example. Both minimize the action scenes, the mystery and thriller parts.
Maybe I found this book not guilty of those same sins because I knew so little about Mongolia (I knew more about archaeology because anthropology/archaeology was one potential career I’d chosen as a child, until I learned how complicated both were and turned to something easy like math and science). The minimal action in this book hits you like a pail of cold water in the face, though, because it comes amidst peaceful academic pursuits. There is a build-up, so it isn’t a complete shock, but some readers might want more. I didn’t care because I was interested in both stories.
There are some special features in the book that deserve mention. I already mentioned the extensive research the author had to do for this book. This is also manifest in the graphics content. The notes at the bottom of each graphic were a bit confusing but made sense when I arrived at the end of the book. They are better viewed in color too, so I had to go between my Kindle paper-white and my laptop. I’ve often argued that graphics, sound, even video and smell, might be in the ebook’s future. That’s way beyond my ability, but this author is off to a good start. The graphics are about Mongolia and archaeology and not the mystery/thriller story, though. I reached the end without seeing a graphic displaying what the Chinese were after (maybe I missed it?).
Another feature is the characterization, especially of the scientists. Rob is an anti-hero in many respects; he’s not an Indiana Jones type of fellow. He’s telling the first story in first person, so you can really get into his mind. Scientific partner Abbey is a real treasure, La Femme Nikita in academic clothing. I would have included more of her background with her father earlier on, but she’s definitely Rob’s complement in the scientific team. Another character, Sumo, is perhaps the most intriguing character, beginning with why he’s called Sumo. And don’t forget the huge Mongolian dog called Beast that Rob adopts. The whole cast of characters is good and well-drawn.
Unfortunately, there are editing errors. I was able to work through them, but they can be annoying. The author is comma-challenged, mixes tenses, and drops words, all mistakes a good copy editor should have caught. He’s also a bit repetitive—a good content editor would have minimized that. These minor flaws didn’t get in the way of the two stories in my case, though. This book won’t be for everyone, but I had fun with it. In today’s mystery and thriller genres, it’s also unique, something you don’t see all that often.