Tom Knox’s latest scientific-historical thriller, The Lost Goddess, creates constant tension through the use of dual narratives that eventually come together in a rather disturbing, and unfortunately, unfulfilling manner.
The book opens with archaeologist Julia Kerrigan excavating the limestone cave systems in a remote part of France. She unearths a hopefully career-defining discovery: ancient skulls marked by one distinct feature. They all have small holes, purposefully drilled in the frontal lobe area, prehistoric trepanation. Thus Knox's first narrative revolves around Kerrigan trying to solve the mystery of the skulls, which leads her on a scientific path of discovery that is bisected at every turn with misdirection and murder.
The second narrative arc deals with British photojournalist Jake Thurby, who is traveling through Cambodia on a quest both to find "the story" that will allow him to finally make his mark as a journalist, and to bury a very haunted past. Jake's life is turned upside down when he meets American-educated Chemda Tek. Chemda is a Cambodian attorney who is investigating the truth behind the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. These communist rulers of Cambodia in the 1970's are remembered primarily for their policy of social engineering, which resulted in brutal atrocities including the genocide of over 2 million Cambodians.
Chemda takes Jake to the mysterious Plain of Jars where the remnants of many of these hideous acts can be found. Many of the victims hidden in the plain of jars share the same trepanations as those Kerrigan has found in the ancient French caves. As Chemda and Jake begin to piece together a horrifying secret revolving around neuroscience, human hybrids and ancient history, they become targets of some very powerful people in Asia who want to keep their secrets hidden. Here begins the roller coaster of chase scenes, grand historical revelations and killings that populate the majority of this fast-paced novel.
Tom Knox clearly knows the ingredients for creating this kind of novel that has been perfected by the likes of Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
1. One male lead in his 30's but who is emotionally immature and somehow holding on to his teenage angst.
2. Two competing female leads, beautiful and academically inclined.
3. A historical puzzle that potentially leads to supernatural revelations.
4. Modern science to either refute or confirm #3.
Stir together with an ample dose of frenetic chase scenes until plot has reached near boiling point.
The Lost Goddess incorporates all of the above, but fails to reach the heights of his fellow authors. While good genre fiction relies on stereotypes to a certain degree, they succeed when those stereotypes elicit the reader's sympathies. These characters just don't. The formula itself is too transparent to allow us to become invested in them. I wanted to see how everything was solved, how it all came together and that kept me reading. But,while the plot moves along at breakneck speed, and the mysteries involved are intriguing and fairly original, I never really cared what happened to those involved.
The writing at times borders on amateurish. The setting of much of this novel is Cambodia, by all accounts a very beautiful and lush landscape. However, some of the descriptions are overly poetic for this kind of book . Knox also seems to write with his thesaurus at his side and falls into the trap many writers do wherein he substitutes a $100 word for a simple term that would have done the job just as well. This kind of verbal gymnastic serves only to distract the reader.
What I find most intriguing about the novel are the snippets of history detailing the short prominence of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. While I was alive during their reign, I was too young to have ever heard much about them. I knew Pol Pot was a Hitleresque character, but beyond this vague analogy I did not have any real knowledge of the absolute horrors committed there in the 1970’s. Here Knox succeeds as am curious enough to explore this a little further and plan on reading up on this regime in the near future.
So overall, I found the story entertaining and worth reading even though the characters left much to be desired. And most importantly, The Lost Goddess has pointed the way towards future reading adventures, as I now want to know more about this brief period of asian history.