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For a moment, it looked as if Victor Milán was the guy bringing a much-needed sense of self-effacing wit and pulpy fun to Gold Eagle's action-fantasy franchise Rogue Angel. But now it seems Mel Odom is the member of the writing team making a real effort to improve his contributions, while Milán's workmanlike approach to the whole enterprise is showing. Even a publisher entirely pleased to accept simple mediocrity in its work-for-hire projects shouldn't be so insouciant about letting sheer crap through the door. Sure, you don't read a series like Rogue Angel for literary greatness, but I at least want my junk food reading to taste good, not to mention stay down when I swallow it.

Despite some ideas intriguing in an X-Files-y way, and some energetic fight scenes, The Chosen, Annja Creed's fourth go-round, reads as if Milán tossed it off a week before deadline.

This time, Annja's on an archaeological dig in New Mexico. Throughout the area rumors are spreading about encounters with Santo Niño, a legendary holy child, who, like the ghostly hitchhiker of urban legend, appears to the unwary, warns them of imminent doom, then vanishes. It occurs to me that this sort of spectre might be self-defeating. After all, what's the good of warning people of danger, if you're only going to disappear promptly into thin air, thus terrifying your hapless warnees so traumatically that, in their frazzled state, they might well forget themselves and have an accident?

Anyway, Annja's seeing bizarre phenomena too, like this creepy flying creature with glowing red eyes that emits a cry like that of a child or woman. This is actually witnessed by the entire dig team Annja is working with, who react stoically to an event that, personally, would have me evacuating my bowels at warp speed. Still, it's a rather interesting data point to learn that it isn't uncommon for archaeologists to be as heavily armed as spec-ops teams while on their digs. At least in Annja's universe.

Milán ties all of this in with speculations about Mayan 2012 prophecies, a Dan Brown-ish fascination with secret Vatican societies and conspiracies, portals to other dimensions, and demons. Throughout the story we're treated to a parade of silly stereotypes of both stuffy skeptics and goshwow believers. The one appealing new character is Father Robert Godin, a sort of mercenary Jesuit hitman-cum-priest who at first pursues Annja to recover Joan of Arc's magic sword from her, before they agree to a cautious truce. But one of Milán's infuriating storytelling choices is to have Godin practically take the lead, pushing Annja almost into the role of his dimwitted girl sidekick.

Annja investigates the Santa Niño sightings, her efforts occasionally interrupted by the sudden appearance of gangs of vicious armed hooligans making a determined effort to kill her. What's so remarkable about this volume is the way in which the Annja Creed we've come to know and love appears to have been abducted and replaced by a clone from Planet Airhead. It isn't until the third such assault (a decent action scene, but one set in some parallel-universe Albuquerque whose police force calmly bides its time responding to a full-scale battle with automatic weapons in residential neighborhoods) that she seriously entertains the idea she's being targeted, instead of just serially unlucky in happening to stumble into the midst of gang wars. Annja, honey, when did you catch the dumb?

The Chosen fails because it tries to build its story on scattered, threadbare ideas, then offers the dumbest explanation imaginable for everything. Milán asks us to accept a lazy narrative in which little more than rumors, visions and rumors of visions are sufficient devices to send Annja leaping into action. I mean, why would she fly off to Mexico City to interview an expert on Mayan culture when she could have called him on the phone, and for no other apparent reason than having overheard a bunch of guys in a restaurant yammering about 2012? Instead of suspenseful storytelling, we get a series of meetings with characters who serve as walking Wikipedia pages, infodumping little history and folklore lectures on us.

And once we do get an explanation for all that's been going on, it practically redefines absurdity as a concept. Not only does this reveal require Annja, in full-on duh mode, to walk deliberately into danger. But once we know what's being done (via the introduction of a new villain right at the climax), no remotely sensible explanation for why any of it has been done is given. Nor is the participation of Santo Niño in any of this explained. Maybe he was just hiring himself out freelance that week. At least the Holy Child sucks at work-for-hire a whole lot less than Victor Milán.

Followed by Forbidden City.