James Rollin — The Last Oracle

You know, it says something troubling about a book when its most memorable female character is a chimpanzee… who then turns into a boy.

Plot plot plot. The Last Oracle is the latest entry in Rollins’ popular Sigma Force series, a seres of technothrillers based around the adventures of ingenious military folk. They’re in it for the moral good, y’all. Anyways, at our novel’s beginning, we’re (re)introduced to Gray Pierce, who’s still reeling over the disappearance of Monk, his BFF. Monk disappeared in the course of an earlier mission, and Pierce has been dedicating company resources to finding him. At the novel’s beginning, Pierce is headed into work to follow up on the most recent clue, when a homeless man dies in his arms. Except, kiddles, this homeless is actually the FOUNDER of Sigma Force, Dr. Polk, and one of the leading scientists of our time. He draws Pierce (and Sigma!) into a conspiracy spanning centuries and continents. This is lucky, because uncovering this conspiracy helps them find Monk, who actually got captured by Russians doing genetic experiments on autistic children with psychic abilities. :( These autistic kids are all descendants of the Oracle of Delphi, the female Oracle consulted by all the movers and shakers of the ancient world. Also, there are Gypsies.

This convoluted plot briefly introduces a myriad of characters. As with many novels of this genre, most female characters are introduced in relation to male characters, so as soon as we meet Elizabeth Polk, Dr. Polk’s daughter, I was all, “Dude, I wonder who’s love interest SHE’LL be?” This talented researcher apparrently falls for Kowalski, a Sigma Force member everyone agrees is a bit of a jerk. She thinks he’s a jerk too, but, like Maid Marian, is secretly stirred by him.* There’s some sort of running joke regarding Kowalski’s shoes, which I think is meant to be character development, but is actually just annoying, and vaguely homophobic.* We also (briefly) meet Shay Rosauro, who’s a Sigma Force member partly brought on to tempt one of the extra-important scientists into talking, and Monk’s wife, who’s mostly important because their love is true and smelling her makes him lose his amnesia. This sounds touching, but isn’t. What’s more important to me are the autistic kids. We begin the novel with several promising girls — they’ve been treated for their autism and are manifesting severely awesome psychic abilities. Sasha, in fact, orchestrates Monk’s rescue from drowning, as well as arranging for her own escape from the nefarious Russians. However, she’s mostly there as a plotpoint, not as a character in her own right. She’s not the child prophesied by the Oracle, and actually ends up spending a large chunk of the novel in a coma. She’s the symbol, though, around which Sigma Force galvanizes in terms of resisting the Russians. There’s also Elena, who’s actually Sasha’s aunt, who’s being forcibly bred with one of Russia’s rising politicians.* Finally, there’s Savina, the mother of said politician, who’s a horrible mother a la the witch in The Unlikely Ones. She gets pregnant by artificially inseminating herself with the semen of one of the first sets of autistic children they’re experimenting on, and is driven mad with power. Also, she’s entirely willing to kill the failed experiments — the kids bred through this experiment, but not demonstrating a verifiable psychic power. While Savina’s actions are one of the major forces driving the plot (she’s the boss of the cabal of Russian scientists doing the experiments), she’s sort of a blank space as a character… like an >>insert horrible mother<< caricature.

Sadly, none of these potentially interesting characters receive as much attention as Martha, the chimpanzee who saves the world and gets reborn as a little boy. She’s nurturing, vividly drawn, and crucial to the plot in a way these other characters aren’t. More importantly, she’s treated as a REAL character — she has fears, a past, a future, nervous habits, and dreams, none of which her human sisters share. I would say I’m surprised by this, but this particular genre has proved time and again to offer only very weak, stock characterizations of the women featured in the cast. The Last Oracle, sadly, continues this trend.

*They begin dating at the end of the novel.

* I mean, the only way it IS funny is if you think there’s something inherently off-putting about a manly manly heterosexual manly man man caring that much about his shoes…. and also, you have to be willing to laugh at the same joke more than once.

*We kinda lose the creepy element of force vibe in this relationship by novel’s end. After both she and her lover are exposed to a deadly level of radiation, she gets his gun so that he can die a merciful death. VERY WEIRD.


  1. SunlessNick says

    That’s really depressing. I’ve read the first two Sigma Force novels (Sandstorm and Map of Bones) – in those, there certainly was a lot of genre stock going on, and the female characters weren’t spared it, but they all came across as active participants both in the plots and their own lives. To me anyway, but maybe your eyes would see more.

    (On the other hand, while I’ve not read three and four, I have looked at them, and it does appear that the male ∑F agents are sticking around from book to book, while the female ones are not).

  2. Maria says

    Is there a wiki about it? I think that if the female agents were to stick around and have substantial roles in following books, my suspicions would be lessened.


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