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James Rollins
Credit: Courtesy James Rollins

In his latest Sigma Force novel, James Rollins traces the effort to prevent a tyrant from igniting a global war.

Timely? You could say so, maybe. But The Last Odyssey actually takes its cues from Homer and The Iliad, uncovering the ancient horrors depicted in that text as, potentially, all-too-real. It’s the next blockbuster thriller from the ever-prolific Rollins, a no. 1 New York Times best-seller who most recently published Crucible this past January.

EW has an exclusive first look at The Last Odyssey. Here’s the official synopsis: “For eons, the city of Troy — whose legendary fall was detailed in Homer’s Iliad — was believed to be myth, until archaeologists in the nineteenth century uncovered its ancient walls buried beneath the sands. If Troy was real, how much of Homer’s twin tales of gods and monsters, curses and miracles — The Iliad and The Odyssey — could also be true and awaiting discovery?

“In the frozen tundra of Greenland, a group of modern-day climatologists and archaeologists stumble on a shocking find: a medieval ship buried a half mile below the ice. The ship’s hold contains a collection of even older artifacts — tools of war — dating back to the Bronze Age. Inside the captain’s cabin is a magnificent treasure that is as priceless as it is miraculous: a clockwork gold atlas encircled by an intricate silver astrolabe. The mechanism is signed with the name of its creator, Ismail al-Jazari, a famous Muslim inventor considered to be the Da Vinci of the Arab world — a brilliant scientist who inspired Leonardo’s own work. Once activated, the moving globe traces the path of Odysseus’ famous ship as it sailed away from Troy. But the route detours as the map opens to reveal an underground river leading to a hidden realm underneath the Mediterranean Sea. The map indicates that this subterranean world is called Tartarus, the Greek name for Hell. In mythology, Tartarus was where the wicked were punished and the monstrous Titans of old, imprisoned. When word of Tartarus spreads — and of the cache of miraculous weapons said to be hidden there — tensions explode in this volatile region where Turks battle Kurds, terrorists wage war, and civilians suffer untold horrors.”

Below, you can see the official cover for The Last Odyssey, exclusively on EW, as well as a first excerpt. The Last Odyssey publishes March 10, 2020 and is available for pre-order.

The Last Odyssey by James Rollins
Credit: Harper Collins

Excerpt from The Last Odyssey, by James Rollins

December 10, 1515 a.d.
Rome, Italy

The painter leaned closer to the decapitated head. The macabre decoration stood spiked atop the table of his studio, perfectly lit by the morning’s brightness. In fact, he had chosen this apartment at the villa Belvedere due to this wonderful light. The house stood within the Vatican, on grounds considered holy. Still, without a tremor of hesitation, he expertly dissected the skin off the dead girl’s cheek. The poor lass had died before her seventeenth birthday.

A tragedy, but one that nonetheless made her an excellent specimen.

He exposed the fine musculature under her skin and squinted at the delicate fibers that ran from her cheekbone down to the corner of her slack lips. He spent the next hour carefully tweezing muscles and noting how the pale lips moved in response to his efforts. He paused only to scratch at a parchment, recording each movement with deft strokes of his left hand. He noted the tiny shifts of the dead woman’s nostril, the way the conformation of the cheek changed, the wrinkling of her lower eyelid.

Once satisfied, he stood with a creak of his back and stepped to the plank of wood resting on its easel. He picked up a horsehair brush and studied the left side of his subject’s unfinished face, her countenance forever fixed at a three-quarter turn. Without his subject here, he had to proceed from memory. For the moment, he ignored the fall of her painted tresses, the drape of her gown. Instead, he dabbed his brush in oil and adjusted a shadow near her lip, using the knowledge he had just gained from his dissection.

Satisfied, he stepped back.

Better . . . much better.

Twelve years ago, while he had been living in Florence, a rich merchant, Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo, had commissioned him to paint a portrait of his young wife, the beautiful and enigmatic Lisa. Since then, he had carried her unfinished portrait with him: from Florence to Milan to Rome. Even still, he was not ready to let her go.

That upstart Michelangelo—who sometimes shared these apartments at the Belvedere—ridiculed his reluctance at finishing this painting, mocking such dedication with all the weight of youthful arrogance.

Still, it mattered not. Instead, he met those painted eyes staring back at him. The cold morning sunlight streamed through the second-story windows and set her skin to glowing, heightened by the dying embers of the small hearth that warmed the room.

Over the years, with every bit of knowledge gained, I’ve made you all the more beautiful.

And he was not done yet.

The door to his studio opened behind him. The complaint of hinges reminded him of other duties, other more urgent commissions that would yet again pull him from her smile. His fingers tightened on his brush in irritation.

Only the soft, apologetic voice of his apprentice dimmed his frustration. “Master Leonardo,” Francesco said, “I’ve gathered all you requested in the palace library.”

He sighed, set down his brush, and turned his back on his Lisa once again. “Grazie, Francesco.”

As Leonardo stepped toward the furred winter cloak hanging beside the door, Francesco’s gaze discovered the half-skinned head atop the worktable. The man’s eyes widened, his face paled, but he refrained from commenting.

“Quit gaping, Francesco. Surely by now such sights should not unnerve you.” He donned his cloak and headed toward the door. “If you wish to become a master artist, you must seek knowledge wherever you can acquire it.”

Francesco nodded and followed his master out the door.

At last, with his nose burning from the cold, he and Francesco reached the towering Apostolic Palace. Unlike the rest of the courtyard, the home of the current pontiff, Pope Leo X, remained intact, completed a half century ago. Its chapel ceiling had recently been painted by that damnable Michelangelo.

Irritation at this thought warmed away the winter’s chill. Last year, Leonardo had snuck into the chapel, well after midnight, armed with a lamp. He had studied the young man’s work in secret, refusing to give Michelangelo the satisfaction of his appreciation. He remembered craning his neck, awed by the ceiling. He could not help but respect the genius on display, recognizing the innovative use of perspective in such a large volume of space. He had taken several notes, drawing what knowledge he could from Michelangelo’s handiwork.

His ongoing bitterness with the young artist reminded him of his own admonishment to Francesco: You must seek knowledge wherever you can acquire it. But that did not mean one had to acknowledge the source.

He stomped up the palace stairs, nodded to the posted guards, and shoved his way inside.

Perhaps sensing his frustration, Francesco led the way toward the wing that housed the Vatican library, where he had worked throughout the night, scouring dusty shelves and closets, all to gather the materials Leonardo wished to study for his next commission.

Time was running short.

Leonardo was scheduled to leave in three days to accompany Pope Leo X north to Bologna, to meet with the French king—François I—who had recently sacked Milan. Matters of state were to be settled at this coming meeting, but the king had ordered Leonardo to attend. A letter had accompanied this odd demand.

It seemed the king—who knew of Leonardo’s talent—wanted him to produce a great work to commemorate the French victory. Details were included. King François wanted him to craft a mechanical lion of gold, one capable not only of walking on its own, but whose clockwork mechanism would open its chest, revealing a hidden bouquet of lilies, the sigil of the French king.

“Do you truly think you can design such a golden artifice?”

Leonardo glanced over to the young man. “Is that doubt I hear in your voice, Francesco? Do you question my ingenuity?”

The young man stammered, his cheeks going crimson. “Of . . . of course not, master.”

Leonardo smiled. “Good, because there’s enough doubt inside me. Arrogance only carries one so far. Great works are born of equal parts divine brilliance and earthly humbleness.”

“Humbleness?” Francesco lifted a brow. “You?”

Leonardo chuckled. The boy knew him well. “It’s best to show arrogance to the public. To convince the world at large of your confidence in all endeavors.”

“And in private?”

“That is when you should know your truest self. One must be humble enough to recognize one’s limitations, to know when further knowledge is needed.” He remembered gawking up at Michelangelo’s lamplit ceiling and what the sight had taught him. “That is where true genius begins. Armed with enough knowledge and ingenuity, a man can do anything.”

He hurried toward the library, ready to prove that statement.


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