Novella Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant

 

We live in an age of wonders.

Modern medicine has conquered or contained many of the diseases that used to carry children away before their time, reducing mortality and improving health. Vaccination and treatment are widely available, not held in reserve for the chosen few. There are still monsters left to fight, but the old ones, the simple ones, trouble us no more.

Or so we thought. For with the reduction in danger comes the erosion of memory, as pandemics fade from memory into story into fairy tale. Those old diseases can’t have been so bad, people say, or we wouldn’t be here to talk about them. They don’t matter. They’re never coming back.

How wrong we could be.

It begins with a fever. By the time the spots appear, it’s too late: Morris’s disease is loose on the world, and the bodies of the dead begin to pile high in the streets. When its terrible side consequences for the survivors become clear, something must be done, or the dying will never stop. For Dr. Isabella Gauley, whose niece was the first confirmed victim, the route forward is neither clear nor strictly ethical, but it may be the only way to save a world already in crisis. It may be the only way to atone for her part in everything that’s happened.

She will never be forgiven, not by herself, and not by anyone else. But she can, perhaps, do the right thing.

We live in an age of monsters.

Mira Grant is indisputably a master of horrifying disease and science run amok. There’s the zombie apocalypse of the Newsflesh trilogy, brought about by an unfortunate mixing of two manufactured viruses. There’s the Parasitology trilogy, featuring tapeworms (ick) genetically engineered for medical use. There’s her short fiction, including Apocalypse Scenario #683: The Box, about a viral outbreak that may or may not be part of a game, and Emergency Landing, a recent release via Seanan McGuire’s Patreon that’s creepy as hell, also about a viral outbreak linked to bioterrorism and basically the end of humankind.

Which brings us to Kingdom of Needle and Bone, which is terrifying in how real and ripped-from-the-headlines it feels. It starts with a measles outbreak, but it’s a deadlier version of the disease that spreads like wildfire and kills its victims within days or even hours of the appearance of symptoms. Not only that, those who survive the disease are left immuno-compromised and their previous vaccinations rendered ineffective. Millions die. And still, the anti-vaxxer movement holds on, strangely allying themselves with the pro-choice movement and claiming bodily autonomy as a legal construct negating mandatory vaccination.

The initial section of the novella deals with Lisa Morris, the 8-year-old who becomes the first fatality of the disease bearing her name. The story of how the disease infected visitors to a theme park is almost enough to make me swear off crowds forever. From there, the focus shifts to Lisa’s aunt Isabella Gauley, a pediatrician who fights to keep the public aware of the importance of vaccination and herd immunity — until she comes up with a different way of making sure at least some people survive the unstoppable epidemics sweeping the planet.

Any story about epidemics and killer viruses creeps me the hell out… but also really fascinates me. Kingdom of Needle and Bone has plenty of creep factor, scary medical scenarios, and slightly off-kilter people who may or may not be mad scientists and/or unhinged survivalists. So yeah… I loved it.

And shuddered extra hard when I picked up this morning’s newspaper and saw a headline about yet another measles outbreak.

Maybe I need to consider a hermetically sealed bug-out shelter… just in case?

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The details:

Title: Kingdom of Needle and Bone
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: December 31, 2018
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

My Thoughts:

While I love the premise of this book, the execution screams “literary fiction” rather than “science fiction”, and that may be why The Dreamers didn’t thrill me in the end. It’s an awesome set-up: A mysterious illness begins spreading through a remote college town, with no known cause or cure. People infected simply fall asleep, and stay that way. Without medical care, they’d die of malnutrition and dehydration, and soon the hospitals and emergency triage centers are overflowing with these strange sleepers. As the weeks drag on, those who remain awake find themselves trapped within the quarantined area, living in an eerie world of deserted homes and stray dogs.

Should be exciting, right? And yet, the narrative isn’t focused on the epidemiology or the science, but rather on the individuals, their relationships, and their meditations on the meaning of life, connection, time, and reality. How do we know that what we think is reality isn’t really a dream? How do we know that our dreams aren’t an alternate reality? When does the passing of time represent a loss? Can we mourn what we’ve never had? Is it more ethical to save many strangers than to save one person that you love? On and on.

While there are some interesting developments and characters, the metaphor-heavy presentation didn’t particularly work for me. As with this author’s previous novel (The Age of Miracles), I felt that a nifty sci-fi scenario became the canvas for a meditative literary piece, and that just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Perhaps this author just isn’t for me. I don’t regret reading The Dreamers, but I can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if written by a more action-driven, science-driven sci-fi writer.

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The details:

Title: The Dreamers
Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction/comtemporary fiction
Source: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway

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