People were talking about ALTAR OF BONES for weeks before it was published. There were the inevitable comparisons with THE DA VINCI CODE --- every book dealing with codes, hidden treasure and transatlantic chases will now be compared to Dan Brown's bestseller --- as well as speculation about the identity of Philip Carter, the nom de plume for the unknown author.
It's hard to describe ALTAR OF BONES without giving away the entire plot, but it concerns a highly revered and closely guarded religious icon that has been entrusted to a particular blood line for care and preservation. The icon, in turn, is the key to the location of one of antiquity's most sought-after and legendary treasures, the stuff of legend, adventure and exploration. The trail begins with a cruel and senseless murder in San Francisco, goes back in time to a Stalin-era Siberian prison camp, and continues with a relentless and deadly cat-and-mouse chase with stops in New York and Paris, among other places, before ending once again in Siberia, where a terrible but tempting choice must be made concerning a life or death matter.
Zoe Dmitroff is both the pursuer and pursued, a San Francisco attorney who suddenly discovers that she is the latest in a line of descendants who have been chosen to save mankind from itself, to preserve a secret that seems like humanity's greatest dream but is at the same time its worst nightmare. She is joined, uneasily at first, by Ry O'Malley, a government agent whose ancestry is linked with Zoe's and whose father is unexpectedly revealed to have played a key role in two of America's most puzzling historical and cultural mysteries. They are pursued by the emissaries of two separate adversaries: a mysterious Russian government official whose history is also intertwined with Zoë's, and a well-known American political figure who has influenced the ebb and flow of politics for almost a half-century. By the time the book concludes, some lives have been lost, others have been altered, and the course of history is forever changed.
ALTAR OF BONES reads like a collaborative effort, the product of multiple writers as opposed to a single voice. I may be wrong here, but the narrative seems to lack that unified voice, as if different authors wrote sections from a general outline and passed them on to the next in the row. There is much to like here, including sex, violence, car chases (lots of them), and extremely interesting takes on some very important events in American history and the reasons behind their occurrences. Some of the auto pursuits perhaps require a bit too much suspension of disbelief. There are many intriguing characters, but at least one of them is given short shrift in terms of face time (though he is left in a very interesting position at the story's end).
The strangest thing about ALTAR OF BONES is that it is one of those rare books that ultimately is more enjoyable after due reflection, a bit like the woman who becomes more attractive in the mind's eye, five minutes after she passes out of sight. The idea behind the novel is a haunting one, the type that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned. Hopefully, Carter, whoever he/she/they may be, will step up and step forward again with another project.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 3, 2011