John B. Olson & Randall Ingermanson,
The Fifth Man
(Bethany House, 2002)

I was thrilled to see a sequel to Oxygen. I'm not a big sci-fi fan but Oxygen, the first book in this series, was full of real characters facing real dilemmas with real emotions. I loved it.

The Fifth Man has the most gripping premise yet. I dove in with bated breath, awaiting the inevitable encounters with the fabled Martian life-form that the catalogues and cover and write-ups hinted would appear. I waited for a peek at something new, even frightening. Recently, I had fun reading Shane Johnson's Ice (which also has a sequel on the way), and I had full confidence that this book would deliver the same level of creativity.

From the start, the authors hook us with their familiar characters: Bob, Valkerie, Lex and Kennedy. The story begins, naturally, where the last left off -- with the intrepid team of four on Mars. Quickly, we begin to suspect that a fifth being, "the fifth man," is lurking about on the mysterious red planet. Suspicions and questions arise, romance fights for a foothold, tensions mount and we move to the edges of our seats for the extraterrestrial showdown. Two hundred pages into it ... still waiting. Three hundred ... still waiting. Faith wavering.

Ingermanson and Olson write with active verbage and tight storytelling. The scientific issues are handled deftly, without pretense. Though the authors occasionally sprinkle the mix with tired cliches and silly similes ("his heart quivering like a bowlful of Santa's belly"?!), the writing is above par for the Christian market. These small errors I can overlook.

What I cannot overlook is the misleading title, cover and premise. Yes, the book offers satisfactory, supposedly even startling explanations for all the goings-on, but it fails to live up to the promised thrills. Yes, for the scientifically minded, the conclusion may be the most believable, but I was honestly hoping for some good old-fashioned fun. Alien this is not.

Who bears the blame for the marketing misdirection, the authors or the publisher? Either way, I feel let down. Was it worth the time? Yes, the story was intriguing, the characters still as likeable as before. Was it close to meeting my expectations? No, not quite.

I still trust this writing team's abilities, but next time I'll remember not to trust the marketing. Go into this with no expectations and enjoy it for what it is. And isn't.

- Rambles
written by Melissa Kowalewski
published 22 March 2003

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