The Colony

by AJ Colucci

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Publication date: Nov. 13, 2012
Category: science thriller

Summary (from the publisher):

A series of gruesome attacks have been sweeping New York City. A teacher in Harlem and two sanitation workers on Wall Street are found dead, their swollen bodies nearly dissolved from the inside out. The predator is a deadly supercolony of ants–an army of one trillion soldiers with razor-sharp claws that pierce skin like paper and stinging venom that liquefies its prey.

The desperate mayor turns to the greatest ant expert in the world, Paul O’Keefe, a Pulitzer Prize–winning scientist in an Armani suit. But Paul is baffled by the ants. They are twice the size of any normal ant and have no recognizable DNA. They’re vicious in the field yet docile in the hand. Paul calls on the one person he knows can help destroy the colony, his ex-wife Kendra Hart, a spirited entomologist studying fire ants in the New Mexico desert. Kendra is taken to a secret underground bunker in New York City, where she finds herself working side by side with her brilliant but arrogant ex-husband and a high-ranking military officer hell-bent on stopping the insects with a nuclear bomb.

When the ants launch an all-out attack, Paul and Kendra hit the dangerous, panic-stricken streets of New York, searching for a coveted queen. It’s a race to unlock the secrets of an indestructible new species, before the president nukes Manhattan.

ScienceThrillers Review:

Why is it so much fun to devastate New York City? Since King Kong first had a go at Manhattan mayhem, NYC has repeatedly been the target of novelists and filmmakers bent on releasing killer viruses, ghosts, zombies, natural disasters, alien invasions… (Here’s somebody’s idea of the top ten best movie destructions of NY including I Am Legend, Ghostbusters, Independence Day.)

Continuing this tradition with a new entomologic twist, The Colony by AJ Colucci is a debut science thriller in which genetically-altered killer ants take on the monster role. Released in the strong opening scene by a deranged scientist with unknown motivations, the ants quietly build an underground empire as they prepare to sterilize the city of human (and other) life. If given the chance, they’ll swarm globally and wipe out the human race.

Almost as much fun as trashing New York is reviewing a book by a new author that I am excited to tell people about. AJ Colucci’s The Colony is such a book, a perfect beach read that thriller fans will devour like ants at a picnic.

In this story our heroes are scientists (yippee!), entomologists (insect experts) who were once married but are now estranged. He (Dr. Paul O’Keefe) is a scientific media star, lives in NY and works at the American Museum of Natural History (momentary shades of Relic by Douglas Preston). She (Dr. Kendra Hart) has abandoned the city and the spotlight for research in the desert. I like the way author Colucci portrays these two. They’re competitive, competent, sexual, and attractive. Too often scientists in pop culture are geeky, stiff, ugly, or mentally unhinged.

Throughout The Colony the reader meets interesting minor characters in short, stand-alone scenes. These characters are red shirts (Star Trek reference, sorry)–they’re about to become ant bait. These death scene vignettes give a touch of horror and are highly cinematic. In fact, what’s most striking about The Colony is its movie-like quality. Of all the science thrillers I’ve read lately, this one seems the most likely to be made into a movie.

How you respond to this book will therefore depend on how you feel about this type of storytelling. From early in the book, it’s pretty clear how things will turn out. Don’t be surprised if you’re never surprised. Some reviewers will surely criticize this book saying, “It’s formulaic. It’s predictable.” To which I say, guilty as charged. The Colony is formulaic in the same way serving milk with cookies is formulaic. Yes, it’s familiar, but it’s exactly what people want. The author has whipped up a confection with broad appeal in the style of a holiday-release blockbuster action flick (without the explosions).

As a critic, my complaints are minor. The descriptions of how individual victims of the ants suffer were a bit overdone and didn’t feel believable. Various plot elements drift toward ridiculous (in the same way they do in most action movies): a tunnel escape hatch is too convenient, the human villain too willingly reveals his plot, and the radiation plan doesn’t even sound like it would work much less be worth the cost. The dangerous removal of a protective headcover in a climactic scene seemed silly and unnecessary in a book–they do that in movies so we can see the actor’s face. And I gagged on the syrupy ending.

Nevertheless, I totally enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, well-paced, easy to digest and full of science-y things. For a debut novelist, AJ Colucci has nailed the thriller formula and created a book that readers will love. It’ll be exciting to watch what Colucci does next. Having mastered the basic form of this genre, she may be poised to create something truly original in the future.

4 biohazard symbols for scientists as characters, believable insect science, using gas chromatography in a scene, and more.

Key words: pheromone; gas chromatograph; laccase; integrated pest management; red fire ant; royal jelly; alate; driver ants; Siafu moto; formaldehyde; ground penetrating radar; electroantennogram

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.