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Onyx reviews: Darwin's Blade by Dan Simmons

With Darwin's Blade, Dan Simmons continues his exploration of suspense with a pulse-quickening action adventure. The versatile author has previously proven his skill in horror, science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction.

The novel is a cross between a techno-thriller, a suspense novel and a gritty detective mystery. As is his custom, Simmons blends existing elements into a new fusion. Darwin's Blade is not a superficial thriller—it has a depth and breadth that enlightens while it entertains. Simmons may write car chases, but he fills them with intelligent and intricate details, transcending typically mindless action scenes.

The Darwin Awards are conferred upon people who remove themselves from the gene pool in spectacularly stupid ways. Numerous urban legends have evolved as putative winners of these awards and it is with one of these that the novel opens. Aptly named protagonist, Darwin Minor, an expert in accident scene reconstruction, is summoned to investigate an incident involving a car that has been "super-charged" with a rocket engine. The crash scene is a splatter mark on the side of a mountain where the ill-advised driver and his vehicle ultimately came to rest.

This is the first of many unique incidents that Minor investigates, some of which Simmons has culled from real or fictitious reports circulated on the Internet. Darwin Minor is the Sherlock Holmes of accident reconstruction. He pieces together unusual chains of events using his power of observation, his knowledge of physics and his awareness of human behavior.

Minor and his associates detect a link between several bizarre accidents and suspect a complex insurance fraud at work. What is strange is that many of the participants in the suspected fraud are winding up dead at the scene. Along with his bosses and FBI Investigator Sydney Olsen, Minor tries to figure out who is behind the conspiracy. With the investigation barely underway, Minor becomes the target of an attempted assassination by two Russian mafia hit men. Someone feels threatened, but the team isn't sure where the investigation has gotten so close to the truth that it could cause this type of reaction.

Minor is a lone wolf. He tries to work with the expanding investigation, but ultimately reverts to old, established survivalist behavior. At nineteen, he served in Vietnam as an expert sniper. He is intelligent and courageous but has phobias and aversions (flying, guns, relationships) that keep him from being just another larger-than-life hero.

His awkward courtship with Investigator Olsen is charming and realistic. He has been relationship-free in the ten years since he learned that his wife and baby were on board a plane whose crash he was investigating. Simmons portrays a tortured soul who is reawakening to life at the same time as he is fighting to stay alive.

Simmons has done his research, and injects large doses of detail into the novel. Most of it is delivered in palatable portions, although he occasionally lapses into extended passages that may be hard for a non-scientist to swallow. Stephen Hawking got away with only one equation in "A Brief History of Time" -- Simmons has one three-page passage that describes the velocity achieved by the victim of a human-vehicle collision in minute mathematical detail.

Minor and Olsen slowly work out the elaborate pyramid of the conspiracy, which extends to include highly visible personalities. As they draw the net around their suspects, the tension builds steadily, culminating in a dramatic sniper duel at Minor's cabin retreat. Here, Simmons orchestrates a gripping finale that will keep the reader turning pages as his heroes face seemingly overwhelming odds.

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