Victor Milán takes over writing chores on the second Rogue Angel novel for the action-adventure factory Gold Eagle Books, and the results are improved. Milán makes better use of the requisite exotic locations stories like these need, and there is — hallelujah! — a healthy sense of humor in play that was absent from Mel Odom's debut volume Destiny, which trotted out its action-movie gibberish with a straight face as if expecting James Cameron on the phone within minutes begging for the rights. Milán avoids going too far the other direction and ending up with the kind of excessively tongue-in-cheek rubbish that's so determined to be in on its own joke with the audience that it just crumples into an untidy lump of concentrated stupid. Instead, Solomon's Jar knows how to balance wit with excitement and suspense, to create the kind of book that, while it still doesn't exert itself towards originality, at least works well enough within its formula that you can read it without hating yourself in the morning.
It's weakest in its opening chapters. We start with a violent prologue set in the Peruvian Andes, which does lead us to think this is what the story will be about. But it's only an appetizer meant to set the tone and reestablish the ground rules of this series: that Annja Creed is a freelance archaeologist with a disproportionate habit of running into gangs of armed thugs eager to kill her for whatever artifact or secret she's pursuing. I suspect her fellow archaeologists are happy to let her have all the excitement. Spending weeks at dusty digs, publishing papers, and chasing after grant money is probably sufficiently hard work on its own, without adding having to dodge semi-automatic gunfire into your schedule.
Annja is also the presumptive heir to Joan of Arc, who possesses (or, more accurately, has a kind of mutual understanding with) Joan's magical sword. This gives her the same job most comic book superheroes more or less have: defend the world against forces of evil and all that.
There's a fairly weak motive prompting Annja to go haring off on her latest quest: some posts on her favorite Usenet group hint at the recovery of the legendary titular pottery, the jar into which the Biblical King Solomon is said to have bound some especially fearsome demons. I do like how the series makes realistic use of the habit we all now have of hopping online for information about the subjects that fascinate us. But in our escapist fiction, I think we'd still like to see our heroine start off with a bit more of a bang, even if we relate to her inner geek.
Still, Annja gets enough bang as she zips off to Amsterdam, then Kent, then Israel, and finally Rio, in pursuit of an artifact that's leaving trails of mangled corpses in its wake. Along the way she teams up with Aidan Pascoe, another archaeologist from England, a fact that's helpfully underscored by the way he says things like "Bloody hell!" and "you lot" and "quite" and "rather" all the time. Among our villains are the Russian mafiya, less cardboard than they might have been, and whose leader, unlike the hostiles in Destiny, knows full well you can't hit anything, least of all an action hero, with wild machine gun fire; a crazy English neo-pagan aristocrat who wants all of humanity to renounce civilization and go back to nature, which seems a real waste of the powers of a demon-enhanced jar, frankly; and finally a celebrity pop-guru of the recent Kaballah fad, who just wants to make the whole world Happy, making him, as Annja is reminded, the kind of guy who'd do massive harm from sincere but misguided motives. This character is just flamboyant enough to inhabit that grey zone between reality and the world of James Bond, but if nothing else, he lets Milán get in one amusing swipe at Madonna.
Plot convenience abounds as Annja is forever just happening to bump into important characters at the right time. She's fleeing an angry mob in Jerusalem when she's backed into a blind alley, only to be saved in the nick by Tsipporah, who opens a door that just happens to be there right at the moment Annja needs saving. Tsipporah then turns into a human Player's Guide, the kind of character who knows exactly what our heroine needs to do next and provides hints and might even pull a complete story walkthrough out of her pocket if Annja asked for it. After their meeting, Annja just happens to run into Aidan again, being menaced by more baddies...and so on.
For action scenes, we get Annja superheroically bringing down a helicopter, a catfight on a yacht with a demon-possessed supermodel in which all clothing regrettably (and inexplicably) stays on, and a final showdown in a steel foundry. Milán sure knows his action movie tropes. The "smoke and flame factory" is the set of the climactic battle in so many of them, because they look so good onscreen as our sweat-drenched opponents fight to the finish.
With so many contrivances, clichés and plot devices pulling the story along, why am I being kinder to it than Destiny? Well, I think Milán is taking a better approach to the series than Odom, who appears to think it's all something to be taken seriously, or at least more seriously than we usually treat what we accept as popcorn piffle and not deathless drama. I had fun with Solomon's Jar because Milán knows his publisher just expects mediocrity from him. Thereby he manages to turn in a story that's just the right shade above mediocre, simply by working as well as he can within the boundaries set for him and supplying needed self-aware humor (which, as stated before, skirts the trap of too much tongue in cheek). The Rogue Angel books are like a pretty decent TV show on paper, with Solomon's Jar a pretty decent episode. It might not be a good enough series to splurge on the DVD boxed set. But you won't have a problem TiVoing it to watch when there's nothing better on.