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Onyx reviews: Valhalla Rising by Clive Cussler

Trouble finds Dirk Pitt anywhere. While working aboard the research vessel Deep Encounter in the South Pacific, one of his colleagues spots a large ship in flames. They weigh anchor and speed to the rescue to discover the Emerald Dolphin ablaze and close to sinking. The huge cruise ship, on her maiden voyage, carries sixteen hundred passengers and nine hundred crewmembers. Most of her lifeboats had been quickly incinerated. No other ships are close enough to help. Pitt and his associates strain the research vessel to its limits to rescue as many people as possible.

The Dolphin's fire had suspicious origins, compounded by indications her state-of-the-art fire detection equipment suffered a complete failure. NUMA (National Underwater Maritime Administration) is selected to investigate the sinking. Pitt and two others are stranded in their exploration submarine four miles underwater when hi-tech pirates hijack Deep Encounter.

Pitt has survived life-and-death situations like this before. Not only is he rescued, he leads the attack to save his colleagues, assisted by a crusty character named Clive Cussler, who has popped up in numerous Pitt adventures but has a role more substantial than his previous cameos.

The investigation leads Pitt to Cerberus Corporation, a conglomerate that owns most U.S. domestic oil fields. Pitt believes Cerberus, and its reclusive leader, oil tycoon Curtis Merlin Zale, caused the Emerald Dolphin's destruction to prevent Dr. Elmore Egan's inventions from going into production. Egan's revolutionary magnetohydrodynamic engines powered the cruise ship and he had reportedly created a nearly perfect super oil, both of which threaten Zale's plans to control the American economy by manipulating oil prices.

Zale's influence reaches into the highest government offices, so he has been, until now, impervious to investigation and prosecution. Once Pitt is on the case, Zale's plans are threatened and he escalates his conspiracy to avoid being thwarted by the ingenious and resourceful man.

Two other—seemingly unrelated—plots involving a lost colony of eleventh century Viking explorers and the possibility that Jules Verne's Captain Nemo and his fictional submarine Nautilus may have been based on reality dovetail neatly toward the end of this action-packed novel.

Cussler's real-life adventures locating and recovering lost historical ships add to the verisimilitude of his fiction. His characters are larger than life and two-dimensional, but his books aren't character-driven. They are action-adventures tinged with historical detail and futuristic inventions, like a modern Tom Swift. Cussler's not above rewriting his own history—Pitt raised the Titanic in his third novel but now discusses the reality of the Titanic's sinking in a way that precludes the events of that novel.

His writing has previously been described by this reviewer as "awkward, self-conscious, even painful." The prose in Valhalla Rising is stronger. There are fewer clunkers that might make a reader wince. Not Hemingway or even Ian Fleming, but definitely improved.

What might make readers squirm is a climactic scene involving domestic terrorism and a plot to destroy the World Trade Center that is eerily prescient of recent events. Fiction as strange as reality.

Dirk Pitt is getting a little long in the tooth to be traipsing around the planet, wrestling villains and saving humanity. His hair isn't gray, but the lines etching his face are growing deeper. This may be why Cussler ends the book with a scene that seems designed to ensure his franchise continues. Valhalla Rising would have been better off without this soap-opera epilog—the strong, bold adventure trails off on a weak note.

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