by Graham Brown
515 Pages, Ebury Press
Review by Pat Black
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Graham Brown’s The Mayan Conspiracy. It’s a fast-paced action/adventure novel set mainly in the Amazon rainforest. There are goodies and baddies, there is gunfire, there are ancient ruins, there is a mystery involving strange technology that shouldn’t really be there, and most thrillingly of all, there are monsters. It is well-researched and the characters are engaging. It never drops the ball on an action scene, and it is a more than capable page-turner.
So why didn’t I enjoy it that much?
Partly it’s because I think I’ve read something very like it before. Adventures set in jungles with crazy natives and fierce wildlife are hardly original, of course, but there was something derivative about the whole thing that was difficult to put my finger on. It reminded me of Andy McDermott’s The Hunt for Atlantis – but, again, that book reminded me of other things, in turn.
Our main character, Danielle Laidlaw, works for a shadowy government organisation which has been tasked with finding an ancient temple in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. Whereas most jungle adventure stories loot ancient sites for jewels and riches, Brown links this Mayan discovery with the solution to the planet’s burgeoning energy problems; cold fusion.
Laidlaw is mentored by an older man, Arnold Moore. I thought to myself: this geezer will fulfil one of two purposes in this novel; he will either be killed early on, or he will turn traitor. And so, I began to sniff out the well-trodden places this book would travel through. It became a game of Literary Guess Who?
Laidlaw hooks up with a helicopter pilot and former CIA operative turned-mercenary turned-general hard case known by one name, Hawker. It’s a heroic, cool name, so you know this guy’s going to be a goodie. And immediately I saw where this was all going. Hawker’s 40, and has hints of a dark, troubled past. I guessed that he would be a killer who is very good with weapons and who will slot perhaps dozens of people in this book - but he’ll have a neat line in cheeky patter. He will establish a rapport with Danielle, who, at 31, is pleasingly younger than Hawker, but not too much younger. This may or may not end up with them in bed.
A few civilians join them on this trip, and they all have character arcs of some kind. The exposition/professor character is black and would most likely be played by Morgan Freeman in the movie version, and possibly also in the author’s mind. His wife has died of cancer, so there’s some tragedy in there, a bit of prosaic life-and-death to connect with amid all the fantasy violence. There’s another girl who has something to prove owing to a privileged background, there’s a douchebag who’s good with languages and there are one or two other peripheral people whose purpose, you know instinctively, is to die horribly or to turn traitor for the baddies.
The group’s security chief is Verhoven, who leads an armed group of cannon-fodder characters; he has a history with Hawker. They are comrades for the duration of their current predicament, but we’re given to understand that once the dust settles, there will be trouble between them. You might guess that these two supposed enemies will come to completely respect and trust each other, and their relationship will end on a note of honour, and you may be right.
The baddies are another shadowy organisation out to collect the cold fusion technology for themselves, simply for profit. Their leader, Kaufman, was perhaps the one character who deviated from the usual template of baddies in this type of book. He was ruthless, had a bit of evil in him, but he wasn’t unreasonable. He’s set up as the main man to be taken down, in the video game end-level boss logic of most adventure stories. I was wrong about that. But in my expectations being confounded with this guy, I was a bit disappointed. Why? Is it because I actually wanted my action/adventure expectations met? Or maybe there’s comfort in familiar stories?
Natives who start off scary turn out to be honourable and friendly, and there is a firefight involving massive, scary monsters at the site of this temple. There are a couple of swindles and double-crosses, some you’ll have seen coming, some you won’t. When the book does kick into high gear, it’s exciting stuff, though.
I wasn’t totally on the mark with all my predictions about how the story would go, incidentally. One of the major disappointments was that, for all that it has its timing spot-on, The Mayan Conspiracy doesn’t have much in the way of apocalyptic material which you may expect for a book examining the now-well-known Mayan 2012 calendar mystery.
Also, for a story which places a massive, ancient, booby-trapped temple centre-stage, there was no sense of our adventurers solving puzzles. The problems to be cleared up are mainly from a historical or theoretical perspective – finding out what certain prophecies and artworks actually referred to, and a lot of examination of the how and why things came to be where they were. But there was no dynamic in this, no sense of harnessing and exploiting the temple’s secrets. Criminally, there’s a lot of telling and very little showing. And for all the locked-room mysteries and problems we could have had, most of the peril comes from outside; The Mayan Conspiracy is effectively a siege novel.
But as I say, there’s nothing wrong with this book. It is a holiday read, you won’t be bored, and a lot of research has gone into it. I would guess that this is the first part in a series, and I wouldn’t have a problem with revisiting these characters. It’s just that I feel I’ve read it all before.