Sitting on the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia is a sculpture by artist Jim Sanborn titled Kryptos. It was placed and dedicated in 1990, with a unique design of cut-out lettering forming the basis of four encoded messages. Three of those message have since been decoded, but the fourth still remains a mystery. While professional and amateur code breakers toil away at trying to decipher the fourth and final message, author Chase Brandon has released a new science fiction thriller titled Cryptos Conundrum that offers up its own explanation for both the sculpture’s commissioning and the purpose of the coded messages.
The story begins in the trenches of World War I. Dr. Jonathan S. Chalmers, Jr. comes from a wealthy family and is university educated, with doctoral degrees in both mathematics and engineering physics. Chalmers has volunteered for military duty, shocking friends and family. But he’s shocked himself the most, as he begins to question that decision when the mustard gas begins cover the battlefield. As the gas begins to burn his eyes and throat, a blinding white light interrupts what he believes is his certain death.
Where Chalmers finds himself next will have a major impact on the next 100+ years of his life. Chalmers is given a second chance at life (twice in the same war, believe it or not), and some unique health and mental benefits gained from his experiences will allow him to play a key role in the development of technologies and policies of the United States of America.
The rest of this review is a bit spoiler-ish… but not too much. Still… stop here if you absolutely don’t want to know anymore.
Genius doesn’t begin to describe Chalmers and the work he begins as a member of the intelligence community as it starts out in the early 20th century and develops into the CIA. He’s got certain skills that the government finds useful, and these skills allow him to both predict world-wide events and find individuals and technologies that can (and must) be nurtured and used to help develop two key programs that are crucial to the long-term survival of the USA — Cryptos and Conundrum.
The story moves fast, with frequent jumps between chapters that take entire years or decades, and it covers a lot of historical events. The story manages to mix the historical (such as the Kennedy assassination) and speculative (the Lost City of Atlantis… not kidding) and outright mysterious (Roswell, New Mexico circa 1947). And throughout it all, Chalmers remains center stage and active in everything.
Here’s the main problem — Chalmers has been able to calculate using some rather strange math just about all of the major world-changing events since his experience. And he knows that the world is going to end… and how. But he has a plan. And that plan will take decades to fulfill.
I mentioned Roswell. Yes, the story involves aliens. But not the little gray men that you’re thinking. Brandon has created his own mythology here, and fills in the blanks with real world events and mysteries that we’re all familiar with and about which we think we know the real stories. There are actually a number of sub-plots going on, and not all of them take place on Earth or even in the time-frame and universe as we know it. We’ve got humans… aliens… and something else entirely, and I will admit that as the story started out I was really wondering if Brandon could pull this off. It just seemed a bit too far-reaching and… too out there… to make any kind of sense. I was wrong.
As time moves forward from World War I to World War II… to the Korean War… and then Vietnam… and then into current events, Chalmers managed to keep my interest as he stuck his hands in just about every developing technology to keep his primary goal in view. And when that project starts to come together near the end of the book, and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out? Well, you don’t.
There’s an ending. And then there’s an ending.
Cryptos Conundrum is a 400-page Mega-Mystery full of mini-mysteries. You’ll figure out some of them, but not all of them. I had many I didn’t see that coming moments. And I absolutely love books that manage to sneak one by… or two or three. Brandon is ex-CIA (I knew this going into the story), and I loved how his knowledge of the agency (and its history) allowed him to create locales and situations that felt real (or as real as science fiction can be). Most of all, I loved the surprises, tragic an otherwise, that he wove into a century+ story about one man and his work to save his country and, ultimately, his planet.
Note: I’d like to thank Lea at Tor for providing a reviewer copy of Cryptos Conundrum.