Five Stars (out of five)

“They negotiated their way around huge rock icicles and milky pools of calcium carbonate suspended in water. Whenever one pair stopped to get their bearings, they could hear the shuffle of the others’ footsteps, the occasional flutter of wings, and the incessant drip drip drip echoing in the darkness.” A team of researchers, led by a former ranger named Michael Duchesne take on the breathtaking and dangerous terrain of Central America to rescue Duchesne’s daughter and explore the meaning of DNA, the capacity of the human mind, and the terrible cost of knowing too much. Part science and part subterfuge, Shifts is a fascinating novel.

The marriage of archaeology and action is not a new one: anybody who’s seen Lostor Indiana Jones will feel immediately at home in Hammer’s Mayan ruins, finding skulls buried in the jungle. However, unlike these blockbusters, Shifts isn’t hammy, nor does it play to the tired good guy/bad guy tropes of typical adventure stories. In Michael Duchesne’s world, nothing is immediately as it seems, which delivers some excellent plot twists and keeps the reader turning pages. Furthermore, though the novel depends heavily on scientific information, the facts are delivered mostly through dialogue—a smart way to keep the story from sagging or seeming too dry. The reader has no trouble keeping pace with the characters as they venture into the jungle. These woods are described with a lovely clarity—again, an excellent balance of landscape and character—and such fine detail that the reader feels the mountain breeze coming out of the pages. “The jungle began to put on its nightly face. With the cooling of the earth, a misty haze settled in shadowy voids between the stands of tall trees. From the east, a mating pair of grey herons soared in tandem over the valley, journeying to their nightly roost in the Rio Verde. The sharp call of a toucan pierced the silence, while a flock of screeching green Amazon parrots flapped their way across the horizon to gather in neighboring trees.” Hammer is not skimpy on the detail, and the combination of snappy dialogue and lush landscape is unforced, natural and compelling. Hammer, who traveled through Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala, bestows his experience on the reader in a pleasant, light-handed way, always remembering to keep his characters at the forefront.

Although the tone of Shifts is consistent, the last few chapters seem rushed—suddenly, the researchers’ discovery of alternative human DNA is unleashed at a global level, and the story does some hopping around. This isn’t disorienting, but given the novel’s great attention to detail, things seen a little rushed. Overall, however, Shifts is a fun, smart, and highly engaging novel—a great choice for readers looking to expand their horizons , pick up a few facts, and dive into the verdant mountains of Central America.

Claire Foster