Subterranean is James Paul Czajkowski’s first action-adventure novel… or his first novel under the pen-name James Rollins.
And so I forgive him for the truckload of clichés and dumb characterization in the novel. I like James Rollins’ work a lot… I find his novels are perfect adrenalin pumpers with the right amount of true science, sci-fi, action and adventure. Subterranean has all that too… but it still falls short of what I have come to expect from Rollins. Since it is his first book, it is obvious that he improved a lot later on.
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The book is set in Antarctica… McMurdo Station and the area around (and mostly underneath it). The story does not see light of day, so to speak, as it unfolds in caves, caverns and labyrinthine passages beneath the tonnes of ice that make up the lonely white continent. A team of researchers hand-picked for being the best in their fields are sent down to the the base on the discovery of the remains of what could possibly be a humanoid community. Unknown to the current team, a previous exploration team that went down the research path has been missing for 3 months. The bosses who put together the new team believe to be better prepared to face whatever awaits them in the dark depths of the unexplored passages.
The team consists of an anthropologist – Prof. Ashley Carter, a caver/spelunker - Benjamin Brust, a biologist – Prof. Linda Furstenburg, a geologist - Khalid Najmon, US Navy SEALs - Major Dennis Michaelson, Major Villeneuve, Major Halloway. They are hired by the head researcher of the project, Doctor Andrew Blakely. An additional character important to the story is Ashley Carter’s son, Jason Carter who is all of 11 years.
The team is lead by Ashley Carter and she is the most annoying female character I have come across in a book for a really long time. For some reason, the author thought that an empowered woman is someone who is cagey, shrill and for the lack of a better word, bitchy! She is bloody irritating for someone who is supposed to be a leading a team, the author himself must have realized that it lacks credibility so he makes her doubt her capability to lead. She is clearly a stupid mess if she decides to take her 11 year old son with her to a cold, dangerous and quite unknown research base. She even has this half-baked notion of motherhood which is everything but endearing… and for a potential leader she has serious trust issues.
Jason Carter is a smart kid. It is nice that he is not characterized as a stupid brat though the other characters do try to mollycoddle him and would want the reader to think he is a ticking bomb. But, he is a resourceful kid and obedient when required, mature enough for his age and has enough of a sense of wonder to not be considered a know-it-all nuisance.
The caver, Benjamin Brust is an Aussie with an open sense of humor, the kind who tend to make a joke out of everything. He is characterized as this fun guy who initially gives you the impression of being a joker who you would want to get rid of after the first five minutes of meeting him at a bar… but, as the book progresses he does turn out to be a likeable character and his ability to make light of the situation actually becomes a plus point. Though, I just don't understand how he could find anything worth loving in Ashley!!
The biologist Linda Frustenburg is the dainty, pretty female (apparently, a must in all ensemble teams). She is supposed to be the ‘rose’ to Ashley’s ‘granite’! Again, the author makes the mistake of equating whimpering self-doubt to feminine softness of heart. On top of that, Linda has a ‘condition’… she is claustrophobic and has hidden it from the team… and as soon as you (the reader) know it, long before the journey to the centre of the earth starts, you know she is gonna end up in a situation where her claustrophobia is going to fuel some tense moments… and might I say some truly artificial tense moments. Linda does redeem herself later in the book when she acts more like a normal woman and less like a clingy, scared kid.
Khalid Najmon is an Egyptian geologist. He is the only Muslim character in the book and as far as clichés go, his case must be the most used one since jihaad was known to the western world. So, easy as pie… he is the terrorist, the wolf in sheep’s clothing… out to jeopardize the research and mission and possibly the whole continent of Antarctica on the behest of diamond cartels and the Middle East’s oil industry. By the way… did I say he is conveniently Egyptian… and not a Saud / Kuwaiti / Emirati, even though it is all for the oil industry!
Major Dennis Michaelson – an upright Navy SEAL, is in the mission to protect the team of scientists but with a secret personal agenda of finding his younger brother who was lost with the earlier exploration team. He is every bit the soldier who does what soldiers do best. He heads the team of military support for the explorers and the rest of his team consists of Major Villeneuve and Major Halloway. Again… with all the clichés in the book, you know that at least one of the brawny military SEALS have to die. The SEALs are all good soldiers and follow orders without letting their personal interests come in between.
The head researcher, Andrew Blakely is an old guy who does everything because he believes it is in the best interests. He does not accompany the team into the depths but is not just a meek scientist, despite his age… and he too gets to be heroic in the book.
The thing is, everyone in the book gets to be heroic at one point or the other. The story is something of a mixture of Jules Verne and Michael Crichton… and it has the James Rollins characteristic plot thread of an untouched, unexplored, delicate ecosystem perfectly balanced, that underlines what is wrong with our own lives.
In spite of being heavily clichéd and at times reminiscent of Bollywood style melodrama, the book is still paced at a breakneck speed and keeps the pages turning. I did not put it down for a moment even though I pulled faces when I read parts of the story, rubbed my temples when Ashley annoyed me, and banged the book on my forehead at some downright stupid moments. In the end, far from the best of James Rollins, not even close to his good ones… but it still is a cracking, adrenalin pumping read.