Book Review: Bone Labyrinth is over-the-top fun

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Bone Labyrinth

Congo meets Da Vinci Code.  Primate and human intelligence are explored against a backdrop of old Catholic secrets.  Throw in a larger than life team of heroes, stylish international travel, nail-biting firefights, nasty villains from China, and more narrow escapes than a Hardee Boys book, and you’ve got James Rollin’s Bone Labyrinth.

Bone Labyrinth alternates between an A-story and a B-story, each focused on one of two brilliant sisters separated by an ocean, and each accompanied by half of “Sigma Force,” an ultra-elite team of quasi-military-spy characters.

One sister, Maria, is the surrogate mother for Baako, a gorilla hybrid who is smarter than normal (and at least in the beginning, appears to be psychic as well).  Her love for Baako and his love for her proves that she is as tender and caring as she is brilliant.  Kowalski, a member of Sigma Force who knows sign language, is rough around the edges, but is able to communicate with Baako, thereby eventually earning love and respect from Baako and Maria.  They are all kidnapped for the secrets of Maria and Baako’s minds.

The other sister, Lena, has a knack for finding historical sites in Europe and South America that are easy to be trapped in by foreign assassins who are always right on her tail.  Thanks to Sigma’s Gray, who can see patterns when nobody else can, and his lover Seichan, who acts like Catwoman most of the time, Lena is protected as she finds one clue after another about the origins of human life, but not without almost being drowned or shot at every turn.

The alternating plotlines and groups of characters may not be for all tastes.  On one hand, the dichotomy keeps things moving along, creates cliffhangers, and prevents boredom with one topic or series of scenes.  On the other hand, it’s one tease after another.  Usually the switches result in delayed gratification, stretching out the resolution to whatever conflict the characters find themselves in, but there are some instances where the switching is just a tease without gratification.

Bone Labyrinth is an ambitious novel, offering the possibility of explaining the moment in evolution known as the Great Leap Forward, or explaining Adam and Eve, or both.  The book is like a treasure hunt, but the treasure is the understanding of human intelligence rather than material wealth.  By that measure, Bone Labyrinth doesn’t hit the bullseye, but at least it goes in the direction of the target.

It is a fun novel.  The characters all have their own back stories and very specific traits, and from that standpoint they are well developed.  They each have some weakness to balance out their enormous gifts and talents.  But I think even James Rollins would admit that they’re all a bit over the top.  I think it’s intentional, because it is kind of fun to watch these combat geniuses at work.

If you love thrillers, or loved reading adventures as a kid (I really wasn’t kidding about the Hardee Boys similarity), you will enjoy this book like I did.  Rollins’s ability to make science and history thrilling is impressive, but don’t expect it to be quite like a Michael Crichton book—ultimately Bone Labyrinth’s fun characters and rapid-fire action scenes are what animate this book, and science very important but somewhat secondary to that.

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Movie review: “Tarzan” swings into action

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Legend of Tarzan promotional graphic

King Leopold dispatches Leon Rom to the Belgian Congo to exploit the colony by enslaving its locals and stealing the diamonds of Opar.  Chief Mbonga gives Rom the diamonds on the condition that he bring Tarzan back from England to the Congo.

Rom’s unseen hand is at work as Tarzan is misled twice to induce him back to Africa.  First by British business interests who want his presence in the Congo to calm the nerves of investors, then by Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Dr. George Washington Williams, an envoy from America interested in exposing the slave trade and militarization of the Congo.

At first Tarzan refuses.  He’s John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke, a wealthy and sullenly dignified nobleman.  When a little girl asks him if it’s true that his mother is a gorilla, he pooh-poohs it, even though a gorilla nursed and raised him.  He doesn’t want to go home, but Dr. Williams talks him into it.

Fearing the effect her shirtless husband could have on female audiences, wife Jane insists on travelling with him.  Upon arrival, she is abducted by Rom, a prayer bead fondling creep.  He keeps plucky Jane in check by threatening to kill her native friends.

Abandoning every shred of doubt about going home, Greystoke immediately becomes Tarzan again, and is given a warmer welcome than Ali at the Rumble in the Jungle.  Greystoke reconnects with a friendly tribe, and warriors travel with him and Williams to head off Rom and Mbonga at the pass.  On the way is where most of the vine swinging takes place.  The good guys free slaves and hash out an old family feud within Tarzan’s gorilla family along the way.

The current day’s scenes are intercut with flashbacks to Tarzan’s youth and his first encounter with Jane.  Although the multiple flashbacks would be confusing in any other movie, they make sense here because we already understand Tarzan’s backstory.

Samuel L. Jackson provides comic relief along the way without profanity or silliness.  The story is adventurous but a tad on the serious side, so Jackson’s character is a welcome counterweight.  Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Tarzan, is the straight man making few jokes and smiling only a few times, mostly when among his tribesmen friends.  (That’s is why it’s perplexing that he was so reluctant to leave England.)

The big fight scenes—one during an escape effort by Jane, a two-round grudge match between Tarzan and his super-heavyweight gorilla brother Akut, and a battle against Mbonga, are all exciting.

But to me, the most exhilarating scenes are swinging into action from the treetops.  The Tarzan concept is a precursor mashup of Ewoks and Spiderman, with the freedom to swing around and serve justice under the jungle canopy instead of navigating New York’s skyscrapers.

It’s too bad that there aren’t more scenes in the jungle.  That’s where we normally think of Tarzan living.  In “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) most of the scenes are someplace else:  England, the port, the village, the railroad, the river, Opar, etc.  On that score, “The Jungle Book” that came out earlier this year outperformed this movie.  (Plus it was fun to see little Mowgli use his wits to outsmart the bad guys, unlike Tarzan who relies more on physical traits.)  Nevertheless, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a thrilling movie to watch on the big screen.