Indie book review: FACE OF THE EARTH by Doug and Linda Raber

Book review of Face of the Earth by Doug and Linda Raber (2012)
No star rating given for indies. (Why?)

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SUMMARY (from amazon): Smallpox was wiped off the face of the Earth more than 30 years ago, but an outbreak on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico has claimed one life, and the disease is spreading. The conclusion that the outbreak is the result of a terrorist attack is official U.S. policy, but the facts don’t add up to terrorism.

Tipped off by a former classmate teaching in Farmington, Sarah Lockford, a young Washington Post reporter, teams up with Jake Overman, a medical researcher from the Centers for Disease Control, to investigate the outbreak.

As the National Security Council debates, the White House readies plans for a retaliatory attack against Iran. A cabinet member with a grudge deploys military personnel to New Mexico to make sure no one stands in the way of a military response. The Navajo community is secretly shut off from the rest of the world. Roads are guarded, and all incoming and outgoing communications are blocked.

The only leak is a phone call to Sarah, and Sarah can’t be found. She evades surveillance and travels through the wilderness to the outbreak site, where she and Jake discover its surprising origin. Forced into a cross-country game of cat and mouse, they must get their scientific evidence to the President in time. If they fail, the U.S. may launch a nuclear attack.

ScienceThrillers REVIEW: Face of the Earth is a combination science/political thriller backed up by tons of research on the science and history of biological warfare, and official U.S. policy on bioterrorism. The central premise is revealed very early (perhaps too early, because the reader’s questions about the smallpox outbreak are all answered in the beginning pages). Smallpox virus from the 1940s has survived in a microscope slide collection owned by a private physician. The slides are unwittingly sold on ebay and the virus breaks out.

What follows is a nightmare situation in which powerful and aggressive elements in the U.S. government label the event a terrorist attack and choose secrecy and deception to deal with it. Only one person not involved knows that something is wrong, and she puts herself at risk to uncover the truth.

STRENGTHS: Face of the Earth is equal parts science and political intrigue, a strong combination not often found in thrillers. Both are meticulously researched, and the scientific content is accurate, interesting, and believable. In particular I really liked the use of molecular forensics to draw conclusions about the source of the virus. The authors did a good job of avoiding what I call the “killer virus trap”: their scenario for containment/ending the plague actually makes sense. Plenty of history in this book, too. The political plot/conspiracy against Iran stretches belief but is acceptable given actual events in American foreign policy over the past decade.

The protagonist, Washington Post reporter Sarah Lockford, is believable and likeable. Native American characters are very sympathetic and portrayed heroically. (The main “bad guy” in the government is a one-dimensional character who I struggled to find believable in his aggression and rejection of facts, however, I bet many readers believe such people exist–and sadly they may be right.) Lockford and her allies manage to evade their enemies and gather information using cleverness and pluck without doing anything too super-human.

WEAKNESSES: The main problem with Face of the Earth is length. It’s not a long book, but it should be much shorter. Pages and pages of text fail to advance the plot and instead describe in unnecessary detail events like a character’s employment history, shopping, eating, packing, and traveling from one location to another. I felt like there was a great story in this book but it was struggling to get out. If you don’t mind aggressively skimming and skipping pages while you read, you can get past this problem. I also found the scrambled timeline confusing–chapter 1 is set on “Day 24” (with no reference to what is day 0), chapter 2 jumps to Day 11, and the seemingly random shifts continue throughout the book.

Smaller quibbles I had involve suspension of disbelief over various plot elements. Wouldn’t more locals have communicated with the outside before the communications shutdown? Facebook and twitter surely would have lit up with the chickenpox story. A revelation about the protagonist’s father is much too convenient. And even if the evil government plotters had the kind of success portrayed here in real life, the proposed military response was so disproportionate to the supposed bioterror attack I found it hard to believe.

OVERALL: A reasonable indie novel with a solid plot, accurate science, and intelligent political intrigue.

Unusual words: varicella; chickenpox; Four Corners; SNP; variola; Navajo; MMWR Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report; Operation Dark Winter

If you are curious about smallpox you might enjoy Richard Preston’s thrilling nonfiction work The Demon in the Freezer.

FCC disclaimer: A free paperback of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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