“The Kill Switch,” by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood. William Morrow. $27.99.
This riveting military thriller is on new turf for everyone – the chief characters, the co-authors and the reader, of course. But new is good here with an intoxicating plot of tension and teamwork that takes you to several continents, each reflecting a combustible feel.
The novel is a spinoff from the best-selling Rollins’ Sigma Force series and debuting former Army Ranger Tucker Wayne and his partner, Kane, a 70-pound Belgian Malinois that has a vocabulary of 1,000 words, a grasp of 100 hand gestures and a powerful bite a culprit won’t soon forget.
The fast-moving, impossible-to-put-aside novel also pairs up a couple of other partners for the first time, Rollins and Blackwood. In a publisher’s Q&A, Rollins was asked how that worked out, and he responded, “We’ve known each other for a while. He’s a Navy veteran. When I wanted to do a spin-off of the Sigma Force with Tucker and Kane, I needed to capture a military mindset. . . . Grant could handle the military mindset, the hardware and the weaponry, while I could bring the animals, science and medicine to the project. (Rollins is a veterinarian.)
“. . . Working with someone else is different and has helped me flex my literary muscles. I’ve learned a good many things from Grant.”
With their background and expertise in different corridors, they did a detailed outline and decided who could tell which part of the story best. They talked weekly about their progress and “go back and forth on what worked best,” occasionally reaching an impasse as which way to take the plot. “But during our conversations,” Rollins says, “”we’d come up with a third solution which neither of us would have thought about on our own. The book is really stronger because of that.”
Action starts in Vladivostok, Russia, where Tucker and Kane are hired to protect a rich Russian industrialist, then segues to the Sigma Force project of extracting a heavily guarded pharmaceutical researcher Abram Bukolov out of Russia to the U.S. for his world-leading expertise on LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor), the earth’s first multicellular plant and progenitor of every plant on earth.
LUCA, which Bukolov believes is to plant life what stem cells are to animal life, is thought to exist in only one place on earth, a cave in Namibia.
While Bukolov sees LUCA from a scientific vista, a Russian general Artur Kharzin envisions it as a poisonous biological weapon capable of destroying U.S. farmland and killing untold numbers of Americans. And he’s willing to do almost anything to find and harvest some samples of the plant to accomplish that.
For Tucker and Kane, escaping Russia with Bukolov becomes a hide-and-seek game with the scientist and his purported assistant, Anya Malinov, who we discover is anything but an innocent associate.
Finding and harvesting LUCA is the objective for these adversaries. But Bukolov has another intent, finding a kill-switch organism to stop LUCA’s growth and devastating potential. Packed with nonstop challenges and betrayals, the operation careens across Russia to Turkey, South Africa, Namibia and the U.S. testing the teamwork, trust and tenacity Tucker and the intrepid Kane have established through years of challenges.
From meeting pretty Swedish freelance mercenary Felice Johansson (not her real name; who is hired by Kharzin) on a Trans-Siberian Railway trip in the early pages to a running gun battle with her aboard a runaway ship carrying potentially poisonous LUCA on Grand Traverse Bay, Mich., in the closing stages of the 388-page drama, the pair’s gun sights are set on each other, although she has the persona of the cat with nine lives (well, not quite that many) to the stirring end.
With an adventurous spirit always at the forefront, “The Kill Switch” boasts and eclectic array of characters frayed to the breaking point one minute and tightly committed to achieving their objective the next. Insightful and inciting, it leaves you waiting breathlessly for Tucker and Kane’s next assignment. Hopefully, it will be forthcoming soon.