When I don’t have any new novels from my favorite major authors, I like to browse the cheap e-books at Amazon to try to find new authors. Many of them turn out to be unappealing — not so much because they are badly written but because, like most indie art, they have a somewhat narrow appeal. Of course, when that narrow appeal is aimed straight at me, it’s like digging a random hole and striking gold.
Discovering Toni Dwiggins‘s Forensic Geology series was like that. It’s not that I like geology in particular — I know very little about it — but I do like science, and Dwiggins’s stories all come with a heavy serving of geological science. It feels like real science too, without a lot of gee-whiz speculation. Dwiggins is exploring Michael Crichton territory, but she’s doing it with a far more accurate map.
Badwater introduces us to the forensic geology team of Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws as they are brought in to help figure out what happened to a stolen cask of ion-exchange resin beads used to clean radionuclides from the cooling water in a nuclear power plant. Yeah, you read that right. Radioactive beads. There’s no threat that someone will turn this stuff into a bomb, and it won’t melt your face off like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What it will do is give you a fatal dose of invisible radiation that you won’t even notice until it’s far too late. That will happen quickly if you run into a large amount of the stuff, but if you spend too much time around even a small amount, you could be just as dead. I think it’s very cool that Dwiggins didn’t try to jazz up the story by making the radioactive waste into some sort of super-secret super-special radioactive stuff, but instead chose to build her thriller around a realistic depiction of the hazards of radioactive materials.
Volcano Watch takes us to Cassie and Walter’s home town of Mammoth Lakes, where the mayor has just been murdered and the local volcano has been rumbling ominously. Actually, it’s not just a volcano, but a whole volcano system, and the mayor had apparently learned something alarming about it, but nobody knows what. It’s not the usual disaster cliché — there’s no young volcano expert trying desperately to warn the town about the impending eruption while feckless politicians try to suppress the truth because they don’t want to lose tourism dollars. Instead, Dwiggins builds her story around evacuation planning until the volcano erupts (it’s not really a spoiler) and then it switches to a story of survival. The eruption of the volcano is described in extensive detail, and the volcanology feels accurate and not sensationalized.
Quicksilver is the third and most recent installment in the series, although it is technically a prequel. It’s also a novella rather than a full-length novel, so it tells a smaller, tighter story. All of the books in the series feature a significant amount of exploration and outdoor adventure, but Quicksilver focuses on a single expedition, as Cassie and Walter get caught up in a family’s obsessive search for a legendary vein of California gold. It turns out that some gold mining operations use a mercury amalgamation process to extract the gold from the earth, and before it was outlawed, a great deal of mercury was lost into the environment. Mercury is an amazing substance — a metal that’s liquid at normal temperatures — but under the wrong conditions it becomes a deadly cumulative neurotoxin. This fact turns out to be pretty important in Quicksilver.
If the Forensic Geology series sounds like the kind of thing you’d like to read, you might as well read through them in order, starting with Badwater, as I did. If you’re not so sure, I recommended reading Quicksilver first. It’s short and tightly written and it’s a good example of the kind of story that Dwiggins likes to tell. It’s also currently available for download at the low, low introductory price of free. Or you could go all-in and just download the whole set for $3.99.
(I interviewed Toni Dwiggins briefly about the self-publishing business for a post I wrote a couple of months ago.)