(photo: halfrain, creative commons license)

By Douglas Preston – This 2010 thriller with a sci-fi premise keeps the reader guessing—and turning pages—start to finish. And, what’s with the moon? Our benign space companion has suffered calamitously in several books I’ve read this year. Not good for us earthlings.

In Impact, Princeton dropout Abbey Straw uses her new telescope to snap a photo of a brilliant meteor coming to ground somewhere in the island-dotted vastness of Muscongus Bay. “It ruined your picture,” says her friend Jackie, peering over her shoulder. “Are you kidding? It made the picture!”

The astronomers all guess the meteor landed somewhere in the Atlantic, where it’s lost forever. Abbey, armed with her photo and data from a buoy showing no sea level perturbations at the time of the crash, believes it hit an island and she can find it. Selling a meteorite will do a great deal to replenish her empty bank account. If she gets there first.

Meanwhile, the President’s science adviser has sent former CIA agent Wyman Ford to Southeast Asia. He’s to investigate the source of some strange new gems finding their way into circulation up from the seedier layers of the international gem market. Called honeys, they’re beautiful, but laced with deadly radioactivity—Americium 241, an isotope of an element not found in nature. The U.S. government, fearing the stones could be ground down to make a dirty bomb, wants a quick and quiet mission to investigate, not the heavy boots of the Agency. If Ford goes, he goes as a freelance. No cover, no backup.

And, Mark Corso, working on a government-funded Mars observation project visits his former professor and mentor’s home and discovers his body—a murder the police describe as a random robbery-gone-wrong. The dead professor had been obsessed with tantalizing evidence that something on Mars is doing the impossible, emitting gamma rays, and sent Mark classified data and an illegal hard drive to prove it. Mark is determined to follow his lead, even though project managers forbid him to spend time on it.

These three pieces of the story come together, of course. Hidden in the islands, in the jungles of Cambodia, and in a crater on Mars’s moon Deimos, is a literally earth-shattering threat. But before that can be understood, more than one opponent is determined to stop them.

The plot moves along energetically and the characters of Abbey and Ford are engaging and believable. Corso is more than a bit irresponsible and self-satisfied, heedless of consequences. In fact, all the staff at the National Propulsion Facility (modeled on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) are two-dimensional. Preston expertly describes the settings Abbey and Ford must negotiate, whether the Cambodian jungles, the labyrinth of Washington, D.C., science agencies, or the stormy waters of the Atlantic.

This book “dances on the edge of sci-fi but definitely is structured like a contemporary thriller,” says Amy Rogers on the review site ScienceThrillers. I enjoyed it, although at the very end, just when the reader understands the significance of the book’s title, he pulled his punches. He has a new one in the Wyman Ford series (The Kraken Project), and I’d certainly read it, too.