The Judas Strain by James Rollins
This past week, I was on Alternative Spring Break with my students at the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. While there, my friend Tracy Wilson lent me her copy of The Judas Strain. After reading only the preface, I simply did not want to put it down.
This book is like all great literary genres and modes all rolled into one. There is the historical fiction telling about Marco Polo’s travels, the scientific/medical thriller in the pandemic that is quickly spreading around the world threatening the entire population, the adventure of being on a ship taken over by pirates, the suspenseful story of the sweet older couple being tracked and tortured by would-be assassins, and the archaeological adventure story of chasing after the mysteries left by Polo’s descendants and later keepers of his secrets. Add to this a mysterious language, Vatican involvement, and the possibility of angels walking on earth and you have The Judas Strain. Even the title invokes memory of Judas betraying Christ, a literary character who has been revisited again and again. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the novel is the amount of seemingly fictional information that the author explains in his note at the end of the novel to be true.
So, you can see how this novel would appeal to me. As a history buff and philologist, as a devout Roman Catholic and employee of the RC Church (7 years running), and as someone who enjoys a good thriller, it is like this book was written just for me. And that’s not to mention that I love science literature and sci fi literature—one of my favorite classes was Faith and Sciences at the University of Dallas, taught by Dr. John Norris.
This was one great book. Explaining why is a challenge and I hope that I’m up to the task.
As a work of literature, it has everything. The characters are well written and you can see how they evolve throughout the story. By using multiple character perspectives, Rollins allows us to see each character through at least a couple lenses. The relationships between the characters are as complex as real-life relationships and following the ways that they change and grow makes the novel that much more real.
The plot is windy. A character met before the first chapter is lost until the end of chapter six. Storylines are dropped for a while and then picked up again, weaving a masterwork that brings multiple events and storylines into one larger story. But, while the plot is thick and takes a lot of concentration to follow at the beginning, eventually you can see how every word written ties into the larger tale.
While reason would lead you to question some of the decisions made (mostly by Vatican agents in the 1600s—I mean, come on, why split up a map into three different clues and hide them all over the world?), the pace of the story quickly gets you caught up in even the most intricate conspiracies. By the end, even the fantastical seems realistic (and, after all, the Church did do some pretty strange things during that century).
The end leaves nothing desired. While open to another story with the same characters and a new adventure, there are no loose ends that leave the reader dissatisfied: only new leads that could lead to a new story. And, as a big fan of Doctor Who, at the end I could almost hear Chris Eccleston saying, “Just once, Rose, just once everybody lives.” In spite of the mass death present throughout the book, at the end, there is no need for tears, only hope. That’s a good book.
I give The Judas Strain a solid 5.