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REVIEW: Plague Year by Jeff Carlson

REVIEW SUMMARY: Good premise, plausible science, fast-moving plot, but characters that are hard to care about.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Survivors of a nanotech plague attempt to undo the apocalypse.

PROS: Bleak setting; story keeps moving; feels like two types of stories in one book.
CONS: Characters are not particularly endearing; despite penalty of death, one group in a community of relative safety pursues plans with little hope for success.
BOTTOM LINE: A good post-apocalyptic novel depicting some well thought-out events.

Plague Year is Jeff Carlson’s debut novel about the aftermath of a nanotech plague that has swept across Earth. The plague disassembles human flesh, killing the victim (gruesomely) after several hours of exposure. The nanotech cannot survive below a certain atmospheric pressure, thus the only survivors are those than managed to make it to at least 10,000 feet above sea level. The story is told in two threads: the first follows Cam, a member of a desperate mountaintop community that has resorted to murder and cannibalism; the second follows Ruth, a scientist aboard a space station whose expertise is needed on the planet if the makeshift government in Colorado is going to defeat the plague.

By virtue of its post-apocalyptic setting, Plague Year comes with a built-in darkness factor; humanity is on the brink of extinction with random pockets of civilization (if you can call it that) scattered around the globe. But Carlson manages to make the setting even bleaker through some comprehensive descriptions of events and situations that most of us would rather not think about. Survival ain’t pretty, and Carlson shows us all the necessary horrors.

He also keeps the story moving. What starts as an end-of-the-world survival diary eventually gives way to power struggles and deception – and not just on a personal level. There are other factions at work here, too. Cam barely makes it to another survival community on a nearby mountaintop with his cohort Sawyer, a man with a few secrets. For her part, Ruth survives a very rough space shuttle landing and learns that the faction in power, led by military personnel and politicos, may have ulterior motives for working to stop the plague. From there, it’s an “us against them” story that is an interesting direction, but falters from some covert planning that cannot conceivably be expected to succeed given the circumstances, yet does not entirely fail.

Most of the characters in Plague Year are not particularly endearing. It’s admittedly difficult to make them so when we are seeing them in the worst possible situations, but I must admit feeling apathetic towards them. I just didn’t care enough about them as much as the human race itself. Fortunately the plot and setting greatly lend to the dramatic importance of species survival ultimately making Plague Year a good book overall.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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