Jeff Carlson’s third novel Plague Zone returns the reader to the lives of tough guy Cam Navarro and nanotech researcher Ruth Goldman. Though the plague year is over and nearly everyone is immune to the miniature robots that once forced everyone to live above 10,000 feet, the world is still recovering. World War III was barely averted, but the Russians and Chinese are now on US soil, and the brightest minds left on earth are mostly dead from a nuclear strike. Only Ruth remains of those skilled enough to work with nanotech. But when a new breed of nanotech arises, it is up to Ruth and Cam to solve the riddle of its creation and save mankind from being wiped out.
Though I skipped reading Plague War, the second novel in this series, I was readily able to dive right into Plague Zone. Carlson makes sure to give character background and world-building back-story to ensure that the reader will have enough knowledge to read this book without reading either of the previous two. However, reading the first two will make reading Plague Zone all the sweeter.
The story itself is something of a return to the style of the first novel, Plague Year. Once again, Cam and Ruth are up against an unseen and nearly unstoppable threat, one that will take their lives in mere moments. Add in the fact that this new nanotech turns people into mindless drones (i.e. zombies) and the odds are greatly stacked against survival. The second novel was more akin to the political thrillers of Tom Clancy whereas the first and third have the tone and content of a Michael Crichton novel.
Most of the story is Cam and Ruth on the run, trying to survive the new plague and to figure out the how and why of it. Other perspectives include the Chinese leader who released the plague and Deborah, and M.D. who works with the remaining American government.
Some readers may dislike the depiction of a homosexual Chinese man as the villain, perhaps accusing Carlson of prejudices. But I think that like many novels of the Cold War era that used the USSR as a villain, Carlson too needed to find some other power that might be able to stand up to America and even beat it, and found one in the Chinese. His choice to make the villain a homosexual is done fairly well, not simply caricaturing the sexuality of the man, but placing into a context of a culture that sets high value on procreation and traditional beliefs about of marriage. It creates a conflicted character that loves the motherland but also hates it for how it makes him hide his true self, making him a villain that readers can personalize no matter their own sexuality.
Plague Zone is an extremely fast-paced, high energy novel. Though there is some love story and introspection between Cam and Ruth, the story moves quickly from one set of dangers to another, leaving the reader only moments to catch their breath. Shifting between perspectives, Carlson builds the tension by often leaving characters at a cliffhanger.
On the whole, this story of life after apocalypse is thrilling entertainment. It has all the earmarks of a political thriller, the content of a science fiction novel, and the characterization to match. I highly recommend Plague Zone to both new readers and old looking for a story full of action and excitement.
Review copy provided by Penguin/Ace Books.