rating: 4 of 5 stars
The sequel to Jeff Carlson’s debut novel, Plague Year, follows the journey of Newcombe, Ruth, and Cam, three survivors of the devastating plague that has been ravaging the planet for the past year. In Plague Year we learned about the machine plague--heralded as a cure for cancer, the drug was accidentally released, making people sick and killing thousands upon millions. The cure turned out to be a deadly virus and people began to flee affected areas. Curiously, at higher elevations, people were unaffected. With the Sierras so close by, California became a safe haven. People flocked to the relative safety of the mountainous California-Nevada border, eager to leave behind the flatlands of the midwest where the plague spread like wildfire.
At the end of Plague Year (the events are foggy, the flashbacks helped jog my memory), Ruth, with the help of two other scientists, hastily built a vaccine for the virus under pressure of conflicting parties. The United States government wants the vaccine for themselves, Ruth and her small band of supporters want to spread the vaccine to the entire population and end the politicking and wars brewing across countries as surviving power houses vie for ultimate authority. But the waiting game was taking too long and innocents were left dying.
Driven by her own sense of morality and humanity, Ruth escapes with Cam and Newcombe, each inoculated with the vaccine, to spread the cure the old-fashioned way. In this post-apocalyptic thriller, our trio is on the run, braving lower elevations to evade US Air Force hunting parties and find other survivors living in the mountainsides to recruit for their cause. But the United States isn’t the only one aware of the vaccine--Russia is in on the game as well and with China rushing to bombard the weakened country, they’ll do anything to insure their own survival.
The war kind of takes a back seat in both novels in the way the Reavers were there in the background of “Firefly” and “Serenity”--we know they’re there causing the fear factor and driving our heroes to Do What’s Right and Escape What’s Wrong, but we never really see more than a glimpse and little hints here and there. Carlson really had to work on building tension between characters in opposition to each others sentiments. He didn’t write an action thriller filled with chase scenes, bullet barrages, and dramatic death scenes or heroic capers. Plague War is very subtle in featuring reactions and repercussions to the war rather than the actual war itself. Constructed shakily out of the political fears of surviving countries, the war churns in the background as more of a looming threat than any actual tangible thing. The closest our protagonists get is a mountainside-view of a small pseudo-nuclear blast pounding out one of the remaining US government bases in Leadville, Colorado. The war happens around the events and characters of Plague War, influencing their decisions, but never directly going past political maneuvering.
I was pretty disappointed in both books with the subdued presentation of war only because I was never really convinced there was anything to fear except plots on top of plots to out-maneuver opposing political powers. And if the war came to anti-climactic end (sure, all wars should be like that, but come on--it’s SF, entertain me a little), the budding romance between Cam and Ruth got its cue from that as well. Bundled in jackets, layers of clothing, and goggles to protect them from bug bites which leaves them horrifically exposed to the machine plague (albeit they have an imperfect inoculation), Cam and Ruth sort of mull around the idea of having a physical relationship but never really do anything other than a few pecks on the check, perhaps one on the lips, and a little unsatisfying lusting after each other. There’s a lot of thinking involved: will Ruth get pregnant and endanger her already ruined ability to keep up with Newcombe and Cam with injured arm and body weakened by having lived in the International Space Station for too long? But she secretly nabs a box of condoms at an abandoned mini mart, holding on to them just in case only to lament their loss when they get stolen upon entering a rebel safehouse.
It’s not just sex she’s after--Ruth is attracted to Cam despite his disfigurement and thinks nothing of Newcombe, and Cam is obviously soft for her, lingering on her well-being far longer than he would on Newcombe, but it seems she’s not even after a relationship. Her confusion, borne out of circumstances, is present even until the very last page of the novel. She’s jealous when Cam, put aside twice during the novel in favor of her lab work on the vaccine, finds comfort in Allison, a woman who not only knows what she wants, but acts on her feelings to give Cam a solid, real relationship. But if Cam can easily dissolve ties with Allison after the first time he’s “put on hold”, it’s not so easy the second. Any fans of a Cam/Ruth pairing are left with an unresolved “if only things happened differently” scenario that doesn’t exactly leave me weeping or cheering in any one direction. It was just unsatisfying and uninteresting. The tension between Cam and Ruth was barely there--Carlson a romance writer, is not.
The other problem I had with this book, and Plague Year, is the habit Carlson has of using flashbacks to fill a confused reader in on apparently random scenes that are unexplainable otherwise. He spans large sequences of time by skipping details and jumping potential scenarios, which is great for scenes that, like The Two Towers include a lot of boring walking and hiking, but confusing to explain the actual events and cataclysms of war that would have solidified the international tensions for me. The political machinations of this book were a little too subtle for me and I found myself losing interest as I lost my place in the plot of events, but I kind of liked it otherwise.
I really wish there could have been more perspective from the Chinese or Russian military, or even how other countries and populations were being affected by the machine plague. For a book that supposedly weighs worldly events, Plague War was dismally American-centric with little to no opposing points of view other than within their own borders among their own citizens.
Plague War never really hit its mark for me, but I did like reading it, even if I was left wishing I’d gotten something more fulfilling out of it. The writing was lovely: succinct, at times incredibly insightful and humanistic, intuitive, engaging. I think I kept reading hoping the rest of the book would do the writing more justice, but the build up was slow and the pay-off unrewarding. If you like SF thrillers, post-apocalyptic reads, and political maneuvering, this is the book for you! But make sure you read Plague Year first. You’ll be very, very confused otherwise.
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