May 02, 2003 08:06 PM EDT

Skipping ahead past all of my usual complaints about the Left Behind series (paper-thin characters, contrived plot devices, always waiting until the end of the book to get to what you thought the entire book was going to be about, etc.), Armageddon, the penultimate entry, finally returns the series to the thrills and excitement of earlier volumes.

The series has been treading water lately, with Desecration and The Remnant (books 9 and 10, respectively) having little, if anything, interesting to offer. It was painfully obvious that Jenkins (who does the actual writing -- LaHaye provides outlines of events based on biblical prophecy) was as bored with stretching this thing out to fill twelve volumes as the rest of us. Thankfully, realizing that the series is about to reach its long-awaited conclusion has finally awakened Jenkins' sense of adventure and brought the story back up to epic proportions.

Giving too much away would be a crime, but here are a few minor hints. In book eleven, we read about the last few major judgments that God pours out upon the earth, the deaths of several major characters (some will stun you, others you'll see coming miles away), and the global positioning of forces for the largest conflict in the history of mankind -- Armageddon itself. All of which easily place this book next to the best and most engrossing volumes in the series -- namely Soul Harvest, Assassins, and The Mark.

The book's final chapters are (as usual) the most exciting part, as things are ramped up to a frantic pace in preparation for Christ's final return to earth (which is set to be dramatized in the series' final volume, due Summer 2004). Best of all, with the remaining major characters all spread out across various hotspots, we finally get another good cliffhanger -- actually two or three of them all at once -- when Armageddon ends literally in the middle of numerous major plot twists.

My one major gripe against the book is that, once again, LaHaye and Jenkins have teased us with a misleading title. Armageddon does indeed depict the beginning stages of the great battle in the book's final chapters, but it's not until about three-quarters through the book that the upcoming battle is even mentioned. The rest of the book is, as usual, spent tying up loose ends from the previous entry. Fortunately, there are several surprises along the way and some of the series' most compelling drama yet. And truthfully, if the whole of the battle of Armageddon had been depicted in this entry, there would be very little left for the final book to cover.

Armageddon provides a quick, enjoyable read for just about anyone willing to suspend disbelief (and more than a little logic); fans of the series will be especially thrilled that the stale drama of the last few chapters has recovered with a fast-paced yarn that very satisfyingly returns the series to its roots. With the climactic end of the tale just another four hundred pages away, it's great fun to see such dramatic changes finally taking place among the core group of characters.

By Robin Parrish