Review by Seeley James
When I read J.F. Penn’s first book, Pentecost, the enthusiasm and energy took me by surprise and turned me into a believer. Now that I’ve read her second book, I am awestruck. She spins a tale containing more than merely plausible science in the hands of madmen. She bases its efficacy on widely reported, real-world science experiments. As a matter of fact, the science she writes of is so convincing that I’ve taken to wearing my tinfoil hat again. (Yeah. After the doctors at Happy Meadows convinced me I was imagining things. The lying swine.)
Why do I say that? Because the only way a thriller can work is if the reader can accept the premise underlying the story. For example, could a plain college girl from Oregon convince a handsome billionaire to give up BDSM for true love? No way. OK, OK, “50 Shades” is a bad example. Here’s one: Could Da Vinci have been part of a secret organization sworn to protect Christ’s Great20-Granddaughter? Sure. Why not? Dan Brown kept us distracted with shiny puzzles and somehow it all made sense. Ms. Penn’s work relies on no sleight of hand. She lays out the science, the art, the theology in a rational plot with no tricks. It makes sense. Scary sense. And her scenario is not just plausible—when you think about it, you know it’s probably in trial at some global pharmaceutical company right now. (Grab your tinfoil; you’re going to want to block those messages.)
In the course of her book, she raises the bar for the stable of authors hiding behind old school, 20th Century publishers. Years ago Daniel Silva raised the bar in the thriller genre to include serious art references. James Rollins raised the bar to include real science applied in believable ways. And Steve Berry raised the bar to include serious historical and travel elements. The bar has been raised again. Ms. Penn brings all three elements into her thriller by combining her considerable knowledge of theology, her passion for psychology and science, and a deep appreciation for art. I love it when I read a book and feel like I’ve learned something. If you read Prophecy, you will learn something.
Like what? Science and religion are boring, you say? Not the way Ms. Penn writes.
While keeping us entertained with an exciting story, we learn about topics that we’ve heard of but never thought much about. Remember Persinger’s God Helmet? Or Escher’s print of Demons and Angels? Surely you remember the scariest social experiment of the post-war era, the Milgram experiments? Of course you do. You’ve just forgotten the details. But Ms. Penn will remind you with chilling results. The real-world science behind manipulation of the human mind by neuroscientists could cure obesity. But what if they throw Milgram’s Psychology of Obedience into the mix? Can they make us do what they want? Yes they can. And that suddenly explains the strange voices on your iPhone, doesn’t it? What, you haven’t heard them? Listen again.
If the theology and psychology and science and history don’t excite you (because you’re a stick in the mud), maybe the writing will. Ms. Penn excelled as a debut author. Now she shines. Her writing is tighter and filled with insightful observations. For example, take this thought by an overpaid servant who has just witnessed the murder of a child:
He bound them with blood and money, the most ancient chains of all and the hardest to break.
Or this, where she shows us an Asperger’s genius working round the clock:
His rough-cut mop of blond hair was spiked where he had been tearing at it. The sleeves of his blue shirt were rolled up in precisely matching creases.
While those passages and many others describe the quality of her art, the structure of her story brings it all together. In a fast-paced, no extraneous crap, linear story line, she reintroduces us to the heroine, Morgan Sierra, and cleverly reminds us of our first adventure together. Immediately thereafter, she introduces the antagonist in the creepiest fashion imaginable: through the eyes of one of his henchmen. An initiation rite actually sickens the man we are following. Without making us too queasy, she makes us understand how evil the antagonist really is—and without even mentioning his name. A couple chapters later, we figure out who it is. As we read, we think, Wait, that’s not the guy who told the Abraham-sacrifice story, is it? Is it? Oh no…