Thrillers about genetic engineering and DNA meddling are popular at the moment – I’ve read a couple very recently myself (Island 731 by Jeremy Robinson and Rock Creek Park by Simon Conway). Prophet of Bones, though, has a very different twist. It places us in a reality in which science has proven that the Earth and everything on it was created no longer than 5,800 years ago – by God. While this takes a little effort to absorb in a thriller that is about science, it’s worth it. In Prophet of Bones, scientists believe that fossils are formed over thousands of years, not millions, and that evolution is not the survival of the fittest but of the most favoured. Man is perfect. How, then, to explain the ancient remains of a new species of human discovered in the jungle of a remote Indonesian jungle? Anthropologist Paul Carlsson is sent out to investigate something that shouldn’t exist. The miracle is that he survives the trip.
Prophet of Bones isn’t a conventional thriller anymore than Paul Carlsson is a conventional hero. His reluctance to become involved is strong but when his expedition to Indonesia results in the murder of friends and the loss of an eye, he is transformed. Paul is a loner, though, or at least he is at the beginning. He sets out slowly, surely and quietly to unravel the scientific truth of the DNA that he smuggled from the island, learning that there could be other remains and, not only that, that there are more scientists trying to stay hidden. If found, their deaths are horrific, pieces torn from them. Whether these injuries are caused by human hands is another matter for Paul to uncover.
The strength of Prophet of Bones lies in the character of Paul Carlsson. We are shown his childhood, one spent studying mice, breeding them secretly in the attic, testing their evolution, all the time living in fear of discovery by his brute of a father. Paul’s sole goal is to win the school science fair but to his father he is committing the sin of playing God. This is a world in which science and religion are tied. Testing the strings that link them can lead to devastating results. It’s not just Paul who learns this. His colleague, Charles (an intriguing character) and friends, such as Lilli who grows close to him, also have to run the gauntlet of this alternative scientific order. The interesting background to the characters, or the shifting opinions of others, lifts the novel.
There are baddies and they are especially nasty but arguably the thrill of the chase is secondary here to the fascinating reconstructed world. The story doesn’t answer all of the questions and as a result I was left wanting more. I wanted to find out more about Paul’s future and whether this world could accept what he uncovers. The novel is very well-written and quite shocking in places. But then God’s authority as the prime creator is under direct threat.
I like my thrillers intelligent and The Prophet of Bones isn’t just a pageturner it’s also thought-provoking.