Both contemplative and thrilling, this biotech story of a discovery in the jungle holds attention through its twists and turns.
Ellsworth James’s biomedical thriller Third Messenger blends science fiction and science fact into a complex, character-driven drama.
Researchers discover an ancient plant deep in the jungles of Guatemala. The plant holds the secret for preventing the breakdown of DNA, essentially guaranteeing immortality. A pharmaceutical company races to exploit the discovery and create and patent a miracle cure. An inspection team is sent in to ascertain if the company is following protocol and safety guidelines, but each member seeks their own answers. As the team delves into the mystery and wonder of a potential utopia, forces conspire to cover up the truth. The jungle not only hides the plant, but secrets that the company can’t afford to let out and are unable to keep contained.
Starting off with a gruesome discovery, the story seems on track to be a biotech horror story. The announcement of the drug and the team invitation are tense and sinister. However, when the drug is revealed to be a simple discovery of adapting a plant’s unique genes, the narrative shifts toward a more contemplative one. Characters discuss the ramifications of longer life and how the technology could be applied to agriculture or industry. The pacing keeps the tension high, even with a wondrous reveal before the action and adventure elements return. The balance continues throughout and resolves in a realistic conclusion.
Characterizations are strong, and most of the varied characters are flawed people who notably grow. One of the team members, Will, fell out of the limelight and is broke and desperate. His reason for journeying to the jungle is painful and real and serves as a major plot development later in the book. Another member of the team is introduced as a ditzy and youthful scientist, but her story arc adds a dynamic quality that complements the narrative well.
Dialogue captures characters’ voices in an interesting way, and accents and quirky turns of phrase add color. At first blush, these seem like means of keep the characters distinct, but they play a role in foreshadowing and hint at people’s true natures, with more colorful voices hiding the most sinister secrets.
The text transitions between technical jargon and casual but fast flows. A blend of medicine, science, horror, and action carries the narrative forward, while the climax shifts into a more grounded drama that eschews the previous style but still feels appropriate for the story being told.
Third Messenger is an attention-holding thriller that blends disparate genre elements to tell a compelling tale.
John M. Murray
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