by J.E. Fishman

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 2011
Category: thriller; science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (from back cover):

Researcher Liane Vinson thinks she can handle her big promotion to the primate lab at the world’s most secretive animal testing facility. Going along to get along, she’ll ignore both the vitriol of animal rights protestors outside Pentalon’s gates and the cold calculus her bosses use to distance themselves from their subjects.

But then one of her favorite animals, a bonobo she calls Bea, shocks Liane by demonstrating the ability to speak. To rescue Bea from the knife, Liane must shed her complacency and challenge CEO Axel Flickinger, who holds the power of life and death at Pentalon.

Imperiling her own life and that of her friend, veterinarian Mickey Ferrone, Liane turns renegade, eventually traveling from New York to Kinshasa in an effort to save an ape so unique its very existence endangers an entire industry. Worse still, as Liane learns, this little ape threatens human primacy in nature.


Primacy is a thriller about a research ape with an unprecedented ability: speech. This ape motivates our heroine Liane to break all the rules and risk everything to save this one precious creature. This central plot line of Primacy will appeal to animal lovers, particularly those with an affinity for animal rights.

As a thriller, the novel starts strong and never lets up. Author J.E. Fishman has an excellent sense of pacing, and while the expected genre conventions are met, Primacy feels fresh and often unexpected (especially the African subplot), not formulaic.

Two things elevated this book into the 4-star category for me. First, I like Fishman’s writing style. He writes with intelligence, uses pleasing turns of phrases, and handles his action sequences well.  I’ll definitely want to read his next book.  Second, I have a fondness for stories with multiple villains acting with different motives. Primacy has at least three sets of antagonists working against our heroine, all of them with their own agendas, and not all of them expected. A couple of individual characters are stereotypical sociopaths, but collectively the “bad guys” are a diverse and interesting group.

Primacy’s main weakness is a common thriller problem: suspension of disbelief stretched too far at times. This is one of those books when you may occasionally be tempted to holler, “He would NEVER do that!” (Even if it’s true in real life, it took me a few pages to swallow Black Ops in the Department of Agriculture.) But if you’re the kind of reader who is willing to stretch your belief for the sake of a good story, you’ll find a great story here. (BTW I think if this book were made into a movie, for which it’s well suited, viewers would be less likely to notice these moments.)

Finally, I must say that as a former animal researcher myself, I was a bit worried at the beginning of this book that I was going to be subjected to an anti-vivisectionist tirade. And I was bothered in the first chapters by the portrayal of some of the “scientists” as unrealistically inhumane. But I can’t accuse author Fishman of being unfair. Compassionate individuals balance out the monstrous ones, and the animal liberation activists in the story are by no means cast as saintly figures. So while I chafe at suggestions that the animal research industry is inherently evil, this book is no polemic. It’s a page-turning story about people and animals set against a dramatic backdrop, the heartless laboratory/corporation.

Biohazard rating: 2 out of 5 because technical/scientific content is present but of minimal importance to the plot. I did not factor in the whole issue of using animals in research, because the book handles this as a moral/ethical question more than a technical one, and the technical depictions of animal abuse do not reflect present-day standards in the research community.

Final note: J.E. Fishman followed a groundbreaking path to publication, and he blogged extensively about it. If you’re interested in the changes taking place in the publishing industry, here’s the first entry in his “Publishing Primacy” series about the journey.

Key words: bonobo; Congo; hemorrhagic fever virus; larynx; FAULT; punctuated equilibrium; primate research; poaching; Pentalon; Lingala

If you like this book you might enjoy: Devil’s Plaything by Matt Richtel, which I would argue has a similar tone and also addresses deeper questions about what it means to be human; in Richtel’s book, the question is in relation to computers; in Fishman’s book, in relation to animals.  Also Second Genesisby Jeffrey Anderson

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