Mel Odom is back for Annja Creed's fifth globetrotting adventure. And, in sharp contrast to the indifferent hackwork that Victor Milán's efforts for this series have sunk to, Forbidden City is a pulptastic mashup of action and sleuthing. It may be the best book in the whole series. All the others should be this entertaining at a bare minimum. It does have its share of irritating story cheats and outright silliness. But the backstory involving ancient Chinese lore (which I suspect is mostly made up, but so what?) is deftly handled by Odom, and its mystery holds your interest as the plot races along, its forward momentum never breaking. Popcorn escapism like this should just succeed at being fun. By those standards, Forbidden City pretty much hits its marks. It had me smiling and chuckling all the way.
Now it's true Odom doesn't exactly stretch himself for his story here. The plot, with only some scenery changes, is essentially that of his previous Rogue Angel entry, The Spider Stone. (In this regard he's pretty much following the Harlequin formula template, which dictates that you can make a new story out of the same story ad infinitum.) Then as now, an unearthed relic is found to be the key to locating a long-lost buried treasure. Here, Odom offers a slightly more plausible legend to back up the likelihood such a treasure might exist — a legendary City of Thieves deep in the Gobi Desert is far more likely to hide such a horde than the tiny village of an African Stone Age tribe — and ups the stakes by including among this treasure a Macguffin in the form of an object of power, the precise function of which is unknown. As with all Macguffins, all you need to know is that the characters want it, and the bad guys want it enough to kill for it.
This time, Annja has possession of a belt plaque, an ornamentation worn by the Chinese emperor's guards, that's a clue to the possible whereabouts of the City of Thieves. It is said to have once belonged to the master assassin, Sha Wu Ying, who betrayed the Emperor Qin and is rumored to have never died, or risen from the dead, either of which would be equally creepy. The plaque is sought by ruthless tycoon Ngai Kwan-Yin, who, being a ruthless tycoon, has platoons of Triad hit men in his employ. In addition to getting on Annja's bad side by dispatching said hit men after her, Ngai is now in the crosshairs of Kelly Swan, a young Shanghai woman who came to America to finish school and ended up (through the kinds of convoluted circumstances you'd only find in an action-adventure story) trained as an assassin by the CIA. Forbidden City is just up to its ears in assassins.
Ngai has had Kelly's father murdered to retrieve a second relic, unaware that the man's daughter is basically Aeon Flux. (Considering Ngai has the resources to do a complete background check on any person alive within seconds by placing a single phone call, it's surprising how little he makes use of it.) This item is an ingenious kind of three-dimensional map in the form of a puzzle, believed to pinpoint the treasure's exact location. Hey, it makes sense. If you were hiding untold wealth in the middle of nowhere, you'd want to challenge treasure hunters a little, wouldn't you? You wouldn't just scribble a map onto crinkly parchment and put a big X on it, like pirates in Saturday morning cartoons used to do. That's strictly amateur. Ngai lusts after the vast wealth he is convinced lies beneath the sands of the Gobi. It must exist, as the Chinese government has an archaeological dig going on there. As for the curse that surrounds the belt plaque, Ngai decides to ignore that.
Also joining the treasure hunt are Roux and Garin Braden, the 500-year-old warriors who are now bitter enemies over the recovery of Joan of Arc's sword by Annja. (If there's one part of this whole series' brief that was quickly abandoned by all concerned, it was this idea that Annja would be a modern day Joan, protecting the innocent from evil. Not only do her exploits put more innocent people in danger than otherwise, but she's always been closer to Lara Croft than any kind of righteous paladin.) Both Roux and Garin are aware of the big Macguffin nestled within all this treasure, which Ngai is not. How do they know of it? Good question, we'll get back to you on that. Look, they're 500 years old, are you going to argue with them? Roux knows enough about it that it needs to be destroyed. Beyond that, even they don't know precisely what it does, nor do we ever learn. A big gyp, you say? Yeah, maybe, but somehow I just found it incredibly funny. I can't disrespect Odom for contributing to a series like this if he proves himself capable of both delivering an enjoyable action story and taking the piss out of it all at the same time.
So everyone ends up in the Gobi, firing away at each other with Big Guns while descending into an underground treasure vault that could not possibly have been built with the technology of 2000 years ago. Then again, I might be wrong; those Pyramids are trickier than they look. Anyway, they must not play much D&D in China, because the bad guys aren't aware that secret underground treasure vaults are going to be tricked out with awesome booby traps. So these stupid Triad redshirts run ahead and trip them all, to amusing effect. Scenes like these make me consider that the kinds of people who design and build elaborate thief-catching traps must not only be paranoid and brilliant engineers, but they've got to have a warped sense of humor, too. I mean, you don't sit around drawing up plans that call for spears shooting out of the wall or rooms with walls that catch fire and ceilings that crush people unless you're drunk, high, and giggling your head off. But then, what of practical concerns? Imagine the hassle of having to disconnect all these traps every time you want to open your vault to deposit more treasure there, or maybe pull out a few gold doubloons so the missus can go shopping. And what if you forget one? You'd feel like a right berk if you suddenly found a javelin jutting from your sternum just because you needed to buy an extra bag of cat food.
Am I oversnarking all this? Maybe. But that's just how you maximize the fun factor in a series like Rogue Angel.