Badwater

Independently published by author Toni Dwiggins (no star rating given for indies)

Summary: (science thriller/forensic geology)  When a freight truck is hijacked, forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and her partner Walter Shaws track the mineral trail into Death Valley. The stolen cargo they seek is hotter than the desert in August: radioactive waste. As scientists, Cassie and her partner Walter are familiar with background radiation in the rocks they study. But as a woman of child-bearing age and a man of advancing years, they become acutely aware of the risk of their hunt. How many exposures are too many? What’s safe? More immediately, what’s lethal? The geologists find out when the unstable radwaste thief unleashes the power of the unstable atom.

Review: Badwater rose to the top of my TBR list for two reasons. First, it’s the first book I’ve read with forensic geology as the scientific cornerstone. (I’d never heard of the field before–sounds like a super-cool area of study.) Everybody writes about forensic pathologists. About time somebody put this geology stuff in a novel. (Dwiggins advertises this book as first in a series, so there may be more forensic geology fiction to come.) Second, I vacationed in Death Valley just a few months ago, and this novel is set in the beautiful, unforgiving wilderness of the national park.

Badwater is structured in a typical hostage/bomb threat thriller format where a bad guy has stolen a weapon (in this case, a quantity of highly radioactive pellets that were secretly diverted from a legitimate but poorly-managed waste storage depot in Nevada), and the clock is ticking to find the guy and disable his weapon before he deploys it. In this case, the radioactive material isn’t fissile (doesn’t explode) but it’s extremely hot and if dispersed will be the ultimate “dirty bomb”. Characters in the book are average complexity for this genre. The science–both the geology and the radiation science–seems to be sound, and is important to the plot.

STRENGTHS:  Forensic geology is cool, and the setting in Death Valley perfectly matches the plot.  The severity and natural, invisible danger of heat, dehydration, and flash flooding in Death Valley reflect and magnify the invisible danger of radioactivity. The whole situation feels creepy and dangerous throughout. WEAKNESSES:  The enormity of Death Valley–both its size and extreme climate–are difficult to capture in writing for a reader who has never been there in person. Pacing of the book isn’t quite right. Badwater has plenty of action, but it starts a little slow and goes a little too long. Characters–development and motivation–are okay but probably will improve in future books.

PARENT ALERT: some profanity (used by one character only, as important part of the character)

FCC disclaimer: A free e-copy of this book was given to me by the author for review.  As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.