Altar of Eden

by James Rollins

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Year published: 2010
Category: science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

Summary (from the publisher):

Following the fall of Baghdad, two Iraqi boys stumble upon armed men looting the city zoo. The floodgates have been opened for the smuggling of hundreds of exotic birds, mammals, and reptiles to Western nations, but this crime hides a deeper secret. Amid a hail of bullets, a concealed underground weapons lab is ransacked—and something even more horrific is set free.

Seven years later, Louisiana state veterinarian Lorna Polk stumbles upon a fishing trawler shipwrecked on a barrier island. The crew is missing or dead, but the boat holds a frightening cargo: a caged group of exotic animals, clearly part of a black market smuggling ring.

Yet, something is wrong with these beasts, disturbing deformities that make no sense: a parrot with no feathers, a pair of Capuchin monkeys conjoined at the hip, a jaguar cub with the dentition of a saber-toothed tiger. They also all share one uncanny trait—a disturbingly heightened intelligence.

To uncover the truth about the origin of this strange cargo and the terrorist threat it poses, Lorna must team up with a man who shares a dark and bloody past with her and is now an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, Jack Menard.

Together, the two must hunt for a beast that escaped the shipwreck while uncovering a mystery tied to fractal science and genetic engineering, all to expose a horrifying secret that traces back to humankind’s earliest roots.

But can Lorna stop what is about to be born upon the altar of Eden before it threatens not only the world but also the very foundation of what it means to be human?


Altar of Eden is a stand-alone novel, not part of Rollins’ popular Sigma Force series. It bears his signature strengths: a strong, believable female character, and best-in-the-business action sequences. Altar of Eden adds two things to the Rollins repertoire: a veterinarian protagonist and vivid scenes + characters in the Louisiana bayou.

But overall, in my opinion Altar of Eden is not James Rollins’ finest work. His weaker books are still better than most writers’ best, so if you’re a fan, read and enjoy Altar of Eden. But if you have not yet discovered the thrill of reading a really good James Rollins novel, start with a different title. {Check out the whole list of Rollins’ books here.}

The main shortcoming of this book is a somewhat disjointed plot. The novel is divided into three distinct sections, which is fine, except I felt they didn’t flow together into a  unified whole. Act One, “First Blood,” has a terrific opening sequence with plenty of action and mystery but gets bogged down in a too-lengthy scene set in a swamp.  Again plenty of action, but I missed an overall sense of real threat; the hunt through the swamp is a distraction from the main story line and the evil behind it.

When the real bad guys are revealed, their actions are clearly evil but the more the reader learns, the more those actions seem ridiculous. I never did quite understand how their unethical, bizarre machinations could have any military applications, nor was it clear to me how much manipulation the people had done and how much was due to the mysterious virus.

Parent alert: Altar of Eden contains more profanity than most Rollins novels (all the language is character-appropriate and used well). Be aware that abortion is a plot element. It is not prominent, politicized, or inflammatory, but if you don’t want to even go there, I’m giving you a “heads up.”

Biohazard rating: 3 out of 5. Science is part of the plot, but as is typical of Rollins novels, the tech wanders from science into speculative fiction. I’d say the science in this one is even more loosey-goosey than usual; I’m having a hard time coming up with a list of key words. The story does touch on junk DNA, bioweapons, latent viruses, biomagnets, animal behavior, extinction, EEGs, coma (though not always with depth or clarity). In this novel, Rollins finally explores some veterinary medicine–for this veterinarian/author, home turf that he has largely avoided in his other books.

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