by David Wellington book review of thriller novel Chimera by David Wellington

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Publication date: July 23, 2013
Category: thriller; SciFi thriller; science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):


Summary (from the publisher):

Afghanistan veteran Jim Chapel has been enlisted in a new war. This time it’s in his own backyard . . . and even more deadly.

A small band of fugitives escapes from a secret upstate New York military facility, leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. Each fugitive has a target—an innocent civilian—and will not stop until that target has been eliminated.

Wounded Special Forces veteran Jim Chapel has been stuck behind a desk rather than out in the field, but medical technology has finally caught up with his ambitions. Coupled with his unstoppable determination, it will take him back to where he thrives: the thick of the action.

Drafted into a new war, this time in our homeland, Chapel is tasked with hunting a group of escapees from a top secret military compound—all extremely deadly, genetically modified killers—and unraveling the mystery behind their existence. Aided by an enigmatic woman named Angel and a courageous, beautiful veterinarian, Chapel begins a cross-country hunt to stop the murders. But are the killers really rogues, or are they part of a sinister conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels?

ScienceThrillers Review:

Before I go all reviewer-geeky and dissect this new science-themed thriller novel by David Wellington, I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading Chimera. The old saw about a good thriller being one you stay up late to finish held true for me on this one. Chimera is an excellent example of a satisfying, conventional modern thriller.

In fact the more I think about it, the more Chimera looks like a book that successfully follows all the “rules” that make a strong thriller novel. Perhaps the only problem with this approach is the author doesn’t take any real risks or break any fresh ground in the genre. But who cares? This is a terrific book.

Chimera opens with a suitably action-driven scene that shows the escape of a group of mysterious detainees from some secret government facility in New York state. Author David Wellington artfully reveals little about who these detainees are, and the reader is immediately hooked with questions. Next, he introduces our hero, former Army Ranger Jim Chapel, a war hero who lost an arm in Afghanistan and who now has a desk job with a military intelligence agency.

Captain Chapel is the epitome of a sympathetic action thriller hero. He’s morally upright, obviously brave, has overcome tremendous obstacles, and yet he’s vulnerable because he’s an amputee who feels washed up and lonely. Never for a second does the reader think Chapel will do anything except the right thing. You can’t help rooting for this guy.

Chapel is teamed up with two additional hero(ines) who don’t steal the show but who definitely shine brightly and are wonderful supporting characters. I fell in love with both Julia and Angel. Julia, a veterinarian by profession, plays the modern role of strong damsel in distress, rescued by Chapel but then becoming a powerful ally. (She’s also necessary for the requisite thriller romance subplot, which works fine in Chimera. Parent alert: this book has sex scenes described in some detail.) Julia is an appealing blend of vulnerable, strong, resourceful, and clever. Above all, she keeps her head under pressure–no panicky female here.

Angel is equally good in a crisis but she is a more innovative character. A disembodied voice linked to Chapel by cell phone (and more), Angel works for the “higher ups” in this intelligence operation. A master of all things hackable, she seems to be all-knowing and all-powerful. She is deliciously ambiguous–what secrets is she keeping? Whose side is she on? She also is a useful device for the author to deal with mundane practical issues in the plot, such as getting taxis and buying winter coats and handling the local police following one deadly mess after another.

Problems? Sure. Chimera suffers from some of the maladies common to this genre. Characters occasionally do things that don’t make sense or border on stupid (e.g., Julia entering the house in Atlanta); the villains are thin bad-guy stereotypes; the hero exhibits unrealistic physical stamina after injury; etc. As I read, a lot of questions came to mind related to the internal logic of the plot. Most of them were answered later, almost as if an early reader of the book told the author it was important to resolve this or that illogical bit. Not terribly satisfying, but Wellington writes well enough that readers who like thrillers shouldn’t have trouble with suspension of disbelief.

You may be saying yes, yes, Amy, but what about the science? Two biohazards (out of 5) on that. Don’t be fooled by the science-y title. Chimera is a traditional action thriller with a little science sprinkled in. It’s no spoiler to say that the escaped detainees were the subject of some kind of military science shenanigans. This science is “explained” late in the book but it’s SciFi bunk. That’s fine. I was more bothered by the preposterous medical bits related to injuries (especially a blood transfusion scene) and the infection subplot. Also, I didn’t like the way scientists are portrayed with two of the most pernicious scientist stereotypes: mad/unethical and socially deficient.

Note on structure: Chimera has no chapters, only an overall four-part structure and many tiny breaks defined by location/time stamps that are happily set in the format T+hr/min. (Date stamps with an actual time and date make me crazy as I can never remember how they relate to other dates in the story without looking back.) I liked this structure and wish more authors would use it.

Overall: Chimera is more than the sum of its parts. It follows genre conventions without feeling too formulaic and maintains a high level of curiosity in the reader. The themes of government secrecy and “black” intelligence operations feel timely in light of the recent Snowden affair. All in all, a highly satisfying read.

Unusual words: Punnett square; genetic counselor; transgenic organisms; gene therapy; Typhoid Mary; Underground Atlanta; Laughing Boy; Stone Mountain; Denali National Park

If you like Chimera, you might enjoy:
Extinction by Mark Alpert; Prophet of Bones by Ted Kosmatka; Lord of the Flies by William Golding

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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