The Patron Saint of Plagues, Barth Anderson

Bantam Spectra, 2006, 372 pages, C$18.00 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38358-2

This is my least-favourite type of book to review.

No, it’s not as if I hated it: If I had, it wouldn’t be difficult to fill a page about how this or that didn’t work, or how the story didn’t make sense or any of the problems that are so obvious in bad novels. But no: I respect Barth Anderson’s The Patron Saint of Plagues a lot and think that it’s a perfectly respectable first novel.

I’m just not very enthusiastic about it. And beyond a few superficial blanket statements, I’m still not sure why, exactly, I wasn’t more deeply taken by the book.

It does deal with interesting issues: As the name indicates, this is a Science Fiction novel with contagious deceases at its core, an engineered plague going through a future Mexico City (renamed Ascensión) even as the Mexican federal government can’t or won’t do anything to fight the problem. When expert virus hunter Henry David Stark is brought in from the North to look at the issue, he eventually realizes that beyond the lack of official help lies a far more serious problem: He’s not fighting a disease as much as he’s matching wits with another expert –one that, as it happens, Stark already knows very well.

But beyond the plot, there’s also a lot to like about Anderson’s unusually bleak future. Not only has Mexico turned into a dictatorship heavily tinted with theocracy, its standards of living now tower above those of the decadent United States. The border now blocks Americans from seeking good fortune in the South, as the crops die up north and the Americans are left to wonder what happened. (In an often-annoying bit of futurespeak, Anderson has his American characters sound dumber by speaking an ungrammatical version of English.) Heck, one of the subplots even concerned the Mexican Government’s hunger for even more land up north, whether or not the US government is ready to cede it. The Mexican population has the advantage of being linked together through always-on neural communication networks, though this carries along vague mystical yearnings satisfied by “Sister Domenica”, who may become the titular Patron Saint of Plagues.

Yet that fun world-building pales a bit compared to the in-your-face tension that Anderson manages to depict as his investigators try to crack the plague that is killing thousand. The overwhelming feeling is one of obsessive determination being the only thing keeping the virologists from dropping dead from exhaustion. Anderson manages to present a portrait of his heroes as a bit crazy, but necessarily so in order to keep working at it. His depiction of the inner workings of virology is similarly intriguing, doing much to present the subject without riffing off too obviously from The Hot Zone and other similar books.

So: not a bad book.

Still, I’m having a hard time mustering up any enthusiasm for it. As smart and skillful it is, The Patron Saint of Plagues is nearly as exhausting as the disease preying upon is characters. Even at 370 pages, it feels long and unfocused. While unarguably Science-Fiction, the simple “Fiction” moniker on the spine and a back cover blurb that starts with “this biological thriller of the near future” clearly show that this was marketed not exclusively to the SF crowd; maybe a smart move, but one that suggests the relatively pedestrian nature of the story inside. As I was making my way through the book, I was stuck both at the laborious pace of my progress, and an unbidden question: if this novel had all the right elements, why wasn’t it more interesting? Though relatively well-written by the standards of SF and/or thrillers, the novel also leaves the impression that it’s overwritten: Too many words obscuring the story.

And so I’m left without satisfaction, wondering what went wrong either with the book or with my reading of it. I’m curious about Anderson’s next book, of course. But his first novel will remain a mystery.

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