by Robert Masello
(very good; top 50% of SciThri)
Publication date: March 5, 2013
Category: Mixed genre thriller: historical fiction, science thriller, medical thriller, horror
Tech rating (out of 5):
Summary (from the publisher):
Nearly one hundred years ago, a desperate young woman crawled ashore on a desolate arctic island, carrying a terrible secret and a mysterious, emerald-encrusted cross. A century later, acts of man, nature, and history converge on that same forbidding shore with a power sufficient to shatter civilization as we know it.
Army epidemiologist Frank Slater is facing a court-martial, but after his punishment is mysteriously lifted, Slater is offered a job no one else wants—to travel to a small island off the coast of Alaska and investigate a potentially lethal phenomenon: The permafrost has begun to melt, exposing bodies from a colony that was wiped out by the dreaded Spanish flu of 1918. Frank must determine if the thawed remains still carry the deadly virus in their frozen flesh and, if so, ensure that it doesn’t come back to life.
Frank and his handpicked team arrive by helicopter, loaded down with high-tech tools, prepared to exhume history. The colony was once settled by a sect devoted to the mad Russian monk Rasputin, but there is even more hiding in the past than Frank’s team is aware of. Any hope of success hinges on their willingness to accept the fact that even their cutting-edge science has its limits—and that the ancient wisdom of the Inuit people who once inhabited this eerie land is as essential as any serum. By the time Frank discovers that his mission has been compromised—crashed by a gang of reckless treasure hunters—he will be in a brutal race against time. With a young, strong-willed Inuit woman by his side, Frank must put a deadly genie back in the bottle before all of humanity pays the price.
The Romanov Cross by Robert Masello came to my attention because one of its two interwoven plots involves the 1918 influenza, the last “great” pandemic that killed uncounted millions of people. The flu virus burned hot through the human population worldwide, and disappeared as suddenly as it appeared.
It is fact that real-life scientists from the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology sought the lost 1918 flu virus in order to sequence its genome. To find specimens still preserved–and possibly infectious–after all these years, they turned to nature’s deep freezer: the bodies of flu victims buried in Arctic permafrost. (The quest was successful; I highly recommend Gina Kolata’s excellent nonfiction account in her book Flu.)
This reality is used as the basis for part of Masello’s novel. In The Romanov Cross, recent warming of the permafrost disrupts a Russian cemetery on a remote Alaskan island. A casket drops into the sea, liberating the corpse of a victim of the Spanish flu. Army epidemiologist Frank Slater is dispatched to the island on a poorly-defined mission to determine if the disintegrating cemetery poses any threat of releasing the 1918 flu virus into the modern world.
Needless to say, because this is a thriller things go very, very wrong with the expedition. What makes this book interesting and original is the source of the complications, which are linked to the other major plot line of the novel, set in the Russian Revolution. The Romanov Cross is really a combination of a historical horror/thriller story and a present-day medical/science thriller. The two story lines are told in loosely alternating chapters that merge in the end.
The historical horror story is about the lost Romanov princess Anastasia, one of the children of Russia’s last tsar. The tsar and his family were murdered in 1918 but for decades, in the absence of identifiable remains, rumors persisted that the young duchess had escaped. Masello creates a story of Anastasia’s fate, linking it to the “mad monk” Rasputin, to an artifact carrying cursed magic, and to the flu.
The genre combination in The Romanov Cross is highly unusual and I felt made for an enjoyable read. Masello makes the alternating storylines work. Also, I normally abhor supernatural elements in my science thrillers, but the supernatural/horror aspects of this story mesh nicely.
On the basis primarily of this story’s science thriller elements, I give it 3 stars (for average). There are some weak links in the scientific and medical stuff but nothing glaring enough to bother most readers. (I actually thought one element was totally wrong but looked into it and found the author was right. Mice are not normally affected by human influenzas, but the 1918 Spanish flu virus is an exception. It kills mice.) The expedition to the island is questionable in its goals and methods (including bringing mice, whether flu affects them or not) but I was willing to go with it because it’s key to the story. A few times I was pulled out of the story for sci/med reasons on more minor points, including an emergency surgery scenario that was a stretch, and when a character with possible flu exposure is not put into isolation/quarantine at the logical time.
Characters: Frank Slater is a stereotypical thriller hero. He’s smart, compassionate, and willing to defy authority, so much so that he gets court martialed for trying to save the life of an Afghan girl. Of course he has a failed marriage in his past because he is so dedicated to his work. For an epidemiologist, he is given an impossible spectrum of medical skills, including surgeon and manager of an infectious disease ICU. The love interest Nika Tincook is a more interesting character. She’s a trained anthropologist, native Inuit, and mayor of a tiny Alaskan town. The “villains,” Harvey Vane and his brother Charlie, are two-bit criminals and general screw-ups whose petty greed and stupidity get them in trouble way over their heads. My main problem with them and their sidekicks was they were irritatingly, beyond believable stupid. As in, here’s a laboratory, let’s bust open some vials and mess around with mice in the biohazard area-stupid. Characters in the Russian plot are reasonably well-drawn; Rasputin is particularly intriguing.
Readers intrigued by the subplot set in revolutionary Russia should treat the rating as higher. Overall, The Romanov Cross is good read but could be a lot tighter. I skimmed quite a bit and felt the book should have been at least 1/4 shorter.