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Rogue Angel 3: The Spider Stone3 stars

The Spider Stone is the first of the Rogue Angel novels to be played relatively straight. Yes, the series, to which I continue to find myself inexplicably drawn (or perhaps not so inexplicably, as Annja Creed’s piercing green eyes ought to attest), is still just lightweight escapism. But in his second outing for the series, ghostwriter Mel Odom dials down the spy-movie silliness and cartoon bad guys for a more than servicable globetrotting action adventure rooted in some plausible history, with a villain — a bloodthirsty Senegalese warlord — who’s just as plausibly threatening. Odom gives us a somewhat bumpy ride in the plot logic department. But he doesn’t pile on the cheese as Victor Milán did in Solomon’s Jar either. No demon-possessed bikini models, for instance.

The plot this time involves the discovery in a small Georgia town of the titular artifact, a tiny carved stone brought to the New World in the mid-18th century by a slave boy, Yohance, captured from Senegal’s Hausa tribe. The stone bears a carving of the spider god Anansi, who, legend has it, gave it to the tribe (“Yohance” is as much a title as a name, given to the boys entrusted with the stone) as a promise they would always be protected. That’s the hell of it with gods: always making promises they can’t keep.

The carvings on the stone also point to the location of the lost Hausa village, where, naturally, it is believed there is abundant treasure. Indeed, Annja and her companions will find it, which is not really a spoiler because in a Rogue Angel novel, you can bet that if a lost treasure is in the offing, it will be exactly where the map says it will be. We don’t really get a convincing explanation for how all this gold and wealth came into the possession of the impoverished Hausa in the first place, let alone how it managed to remain undiscovered and unplundered for 250 years. But that’s one of those little logic bumps I mentioned before.

As is the way in which Odom oddly establishes one group of villains at the novels’ onset — a sleazy wannabe politician and his murderous mercenary brother — only to have them quickly dispatched from the proceedings and another group of villains come along to take their place. But this group’s leader is the first relatively realistic bad guy the series has yet had. Tafari is a cold-blooded, drug-running warlord with ties to al-Qaeda and a penchant for massacring entire villages whenever he needs to remind everyone what a terrifying badass he is. As Africa has often been a continent wracked by violence of the ghastliest sort, tribal and otherwise, Tafari is a character scarily rooted in reality. Moreover, Odom introduces themes involving the industrial exploitation of native lands and peoples to give his narrative a little humanist gravitas.

But it’s in not going as far with Tafari’s evil as he should that Odom holds this series entry back from its potential, a decision quite possibly influenced by Gold Eagle’s editorial bosses. Had the climactic showdown between Annja and Tafari been more frightening and intense than it actually is — more to the point, as frightening and intense as it should have been for maximum reader investment — then The Spider Stone might have been a terrific action novel instead of just a pretty good one. But it appears that Gold Eagle is a little reluctant to let Annja be more vulnerable and less invincible when the bullets (which she always dodges) start flying.

Where this book worked was in the way Odom let the story breathe, its plot developing at a steady and efficient pace that allowed for some good character moments. The temptation to throw in an absurd fight scene every other chapter, with Annja somersaulting through the air with her magic sword like Wonder Woman while SMG rounds manage to miss her by millimeters, has been tamped down. Now such fight scenes occur more or less when the time is right in the story for one.

Even a critic has to have his guilty-pleasure, potato-chip entertainment indulgences, and I suppose Rogue Angel is shaping up to be mine. Oh, we’re a long way away from great escapism in these books. But it does look as if, as the series develops, its authors are tiptoeing away as best they can from what felt like editorially-imposed mediocrity and video-game nonsense in the first couple of books, towards, if not top-notch adventure novel-writing, at least the sort of satisfying rainy day entertainment they can be proud to put their names on, even if it’s only on the copyright page. If you’ve been tempted at all to check out one of these books to see what they’re like, The Spider Stone will give you their flavor as well as any of them. There’s no buried storytelling treasure here, but the quest is not without its pleasures.

Followed by The Chosen. Also included in Renaissance, an omnibus collecting the series’ first three books.