It’s inevitable that novels such as this one will be compared to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” so let me get that out of the way right now -- Brown practically single-handedly rejuvenated a genre of fiction which incorporates the elements of ancient history, religion, mythologies, conspiracies all mixed up with elements of modern science and politics -- and THE VESUVIUS ISOTOPE is solidly in that realm.
I should mention that Brown’s Da Vinci Code was largely derivative of UMBERTO ECO'S masterful novel, FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM. But whatever the case, after Brown sold about a hundred ba-zillion copies of his low-brow version of Eco’s epic, it was no surprise that many new writers followed suit, and so that’s why I say it’s practically a new genre.
In The Vesuvius Isotope instead of a brilliant Harvard professor of symbology we have world-class Ph.D. biologist, Dr. Katrina Stone. Instead of a mystery involving the tangled ancient dealings of the Catholic Church dovetailing with arcane pagan belief systems, we have the multifaceted mysteries of ancient Egyptian religion.
The start of both novels are even similar. They both launch with the discovery of a dead body that is naked. In the case of the Da Vinci Code it is the curator of the Louvre. In the Vesuvius Isotope it is the husband of biologist Katrina Stone - her husband happened to be one of the world's leading scientist.
So in both books a morbid naked discovery launches the characters on a journey of international intrigue. This entails a globe-trotting search across spectacular venues of the ancient world to solve a vexing mystery. In Brown’s book it’s cracking the so-called Da Vinci code. In this book it’s a search for an ancient remedy for cancer possibly developed by none other than Queen Cleopatra herself.
Unfortunately, and for the sake of full disclosure, I consider Brown’s Da Vinci Code to be among the worst novels ever written. I agree with Salmon Rushdie who said The Da Vinci Code is, “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name,” and Stephen King who said the Da Vinci Code is, “the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.”
But wait a minute -- Is it even fair to make the comparison? After all, a visit to author KRISTEN ELISE'S WEB SITE reveals her day job is actually that of Ph.D. biologist and cancer drug research specialist, the same as her Katrina Stone heroine. Elise says it was her work with a certain isotopes that inspired the plot of this book.
And yet, I think anyone can see the similarities I point out between "Vesuvius" and "Da Vinci."
Okay, with that caveat -- and clearing the table to leave all comparisons behind -- how does The Vesuvius Isotope stand on it’s own? In my view, not very well. This is a first-time novel definitely not ready for prime time. My reasons have nothing to do with unfortunate resemblances to The Da Vinci Code. For me The Vesuvius Isotope falters all by itself on many levels, including:
* The narrative does not sustain a consistent feeling of tension and urgency. That’s because the author frequently stops the action for detailed explanations (lectures) of historical facts, personalities and situations. The ancient history background is necessary to provide context for what is happening today -- but it means a full-stop in unfolding the plot. A more skilled writer would be able to weave these elements together more seamlessly.
* Overuse of flashbacks, dream elements and introspective interludes inside the head of the main character. The author relies heavily on flashbacks to flesh out characters and provide background context -- but she goes to the “flashback well” far, far too often, creating a choppy, disjointed feel to the narrative -- which is also often confusing.
* Cliche elements: As just one example, The Dr. Jeffrey Wilson character seems plucked out of a Harlequin Romance novel. He’s amazingly handsome, a multimillionaire and brilliant. He won the Nobel Prize before the age of 40! He looks fantastic while naked with his “lean surfer's body.” He not only has blue eyes, but “smoky blue eyes” (the vaunted ‘smokiness’ is mentioned no less than four times). His “sandy locks” fall seductively onto his forehead. Ladies, this delicious hunk is not only sweet, thoughtful, kind and romantic -- he loves wine, museums, flowers, Paris and surprise gifts -- he’s available!
Well, after all, this is fiction.
But there are other cliché gimmicks as well: Such as the old Hollywood ploy to bump somebody off via ye olde: “rigging the car brakes” and the hackneyed, “monkey around with the oxygen tanks of the scuba gear.”
One of the biggest drawback of the book for me is this: A murky enemy that only emerges toward the end. We eventually find out who the nefarious forces are -- but the troublemakers are only revealed in the final scenes.
Why is this a problem? Because a really thrilling novel pits a frightening, twisted, evil and devious enemy against the heroic goodness of the protagonists. In order for us to be afraid for the heroes, we need a vivid picture of how loathsome the enemy is. We need to see them, fear them and hate them. The worse the enemy, and the more viscerally defined, the more we will be afraid for our heroes. We'll also be satisfied when the creeps are defeated in a big show down at the end.
But in this novel, we only get hints of shadowy figures involved in some conspiratorial operation are scheming to trip up the do-gooders. For some reason, they don’t want a miracle cure for cancer to be found, but we don’t know why. (Certainly it must be the pharmaceutical giants, right? No, you would be wrong!) When the "big reveal" does finally come, it has all the climactic punch of a friendly game of darts.
Certainly other readers may disagree entirely with my take on The Vesuvius Isotope. Without guile I say that I hope a lot of other readers would buy this book, read it, and then come back here and tell me if my take is spot on -- or if I’m nuts.
Your reviewer, Ken Korczak, is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA