Mark Andrew Olsen,
The Assignment
(Bethany House, 2004)

In The Assignment, a novel by Mark Andrew Olsen, good and evil seriously conflict in a well-told story through a unique combination of characters, scenes and plot development that should please many mystery readers.

Based on an unlikely but entirely plausible premise that can't be explained here without revealing too much of the story, the book's cover hints at espionage. It is an espionage story packed with a divine twist. In this spiritual thriller, time travel of a sort is explored and the writer explores tragic events of the past and how they personally affect the main character.

The book features a grouping of characters with strength, power and honesty, and one with an intense drive to reach the end of the assignment against destructive forces. It explores a powerful new concept that makes perfect sense within the boundaries of biblical history.

Characters include Nora, a young student; Betsy, an archeologist; seven monks of an obscure order; a conclave of bishops; and a smattering of CIA agents, and they all slide into scenes that jump quickly from country to country. From cracking open a cement tomb in Poland to confinement in an undergound archives in Rome, to reliving smells on the streets in Jerusalem, from the pain of the Black Death on the streets of Paris to a heartbreaking love story in Ireland, this story reveals personal sorrow during massive conflicts and suffering worldwide.

I can't tell you much more than this without giving away the story. Knowledgable mystery readers will enjoy the discussion of modern and historical issues. We see history touch the modern age from a new vantage point with this author. Another plus, the story's not based on recycled clues that literate mystery readers over the age of 40 are subject to in some fiction these days. There's a high puzzlement value in the early chapters as your mind bounces around and over and into events -- but patience pays off and when you get further into the book the bumpy ride becomes a veritable rollercoaster that speeds up on the turns. Unfortunately, without an anchor point in the first few chapters some readers might not make the effort to continue.

This is a book I think would successfully survive the transition from page to film. The writer tells a tremendous story, and matter-of-factly throughout the book engages the reader in a type of spiritualism with muscle. Angels are "spiritual intelligence operatives" who take their job seriously, not fluffy, sweet, airy beings. Spiritual messages come across as part of the essence of the story, not broken twigs or branches sticking out unnaturally to interrupt the flow of the story. This shows a maturity in this type of publication and hopefully a coming of age that will catch on and continue.

As an aside, there were a few spots that I thought were a little too cliche, such as a shoot-out with guys in black but, again, put it in the movie and it'd fly. The story is fairly tight even though it swings widely across the globe and has a cast of many. It's a better than average book, I believe, proof being that I'm keeping it for a second read.

by Virginia MacIsaac
4 November 2006

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