Year One by Nora Roberts (SF/F Novel, December 2017).
Is it the tense times we live in that has so many authors exploring the theme of society collapsing via assorted doomsday scenarios? Of course the post-holocaust world is a long-established theme in science fiction and also crops up in supernatural fantasy from time to time. Here, the incredibly prolific (over 200 books published in an array of genres), much-honored and best-selling author Nora Roberts addresses the topic in striking, genre-blending fashion with the start of a new series.
It all opens in Scotland with a family reunion accidentally unleashing a plague. What’s soon dubbed the Doom spreads across the world via modern transportation and brings quick yet grotesque death to 80% of those exposed. The pandemic defies all efforts to control, can’t be treated or contained. The result is panic and the utter collapse of civilization. There seems no rhyme or reason to who is immune and in the overpowering, confusion-fueled horror many uninfected people are killed.
Some survivors turn into murderous gangs of plunderers, despair leads to suicides and still others scramble to survive and escape the madness in whatever way presents itself. Roberts’ view of how different people react to this horrific social disaster is really pretty conventional–well told and unflinchingly honest, yet in some ways rather routine for the topic (all things considered). What sets the book (and what is surely to follow in additional volumes) somewhat apart is how Roberts blends fantasy, SF and even romance elements in this first of the Chronicles of the One.
Even before the outbreak, this was a world where true magic (while not widely recognized) was practiced by a few. That included Lana and Max, two young adults who lived together in New York City. They could work small spells (lighting candles at a distance, for example). Both prove immune to the plague, but like a significant minority of the survivors, it vastly enhances their unconventional abilities. Others turn into seers, winged fairies, shapeshifters, vampire-like monsters–in fact a whole array of otherworldly beings (though no zombies come on the scene, at least to date). Those blessed (or cursed) with these new powers are called the Uncanny. Many ‘normal’ survivors fear and hate them, a few jump to the conclusion that these ‘unnatural’ people have somehow triggered the horror and systematically begin to hunt and kill them.
A variety of characters that Roberts does well fleshing out struggle to survive and eventually come together in an abandoned town after multiple adventures and trials, forming a near-utopian community called New Hope. This includes Max and now-pregnant Lana, but predictably their relief and joy is short-lived. The Uncanny-hunters have formed a brutal army dedicated to exterminating all the ‘unnatural’ ones (not to mention ‘normals’ who would live with them). And among the Uncanny themselves there are power-mad savages every bit as evil as the vengeful hunters.
Somehow it becomes known that Lana’s unborn child is The One (an Uncanny who will be a sort of saviour to her kind–and maybe ‘regular’ survivors as well). In their blind hatred, the fanatic Uncanny haters and two crazed Uncannys Lana and Max barely escaped from earlier form a temporary alliance to destroy the unborn child. This alliance of sworn enemies bring to my mind the likes of Hitler and Stalin making temporary common cause in the early days of WW II.
In any case, the evil ones attack New Hope, which is aware of the fanatics’ threat yet lets its guard down rather shockingly to enjoy a celebration after months of quiet. The assault is repelled, but Max is among the dead. Now comes the one development in the plot that I have major trouble with: Very pregnant Lana knows that the child she carries is the main focus of their enemies and decides to leave the town, rather than stay where she has friends who will fight beside her. Has she never heard the expression ‘safety in numbers’?
But flee she does and in time she comes into contact with a former soldier turned farmer who lives alone outside another village where survivors have restarted civilization. Simon will, of course, be Lana’s new love interest and help protect the One from all threats. The child (Fallon) is born into this temporarily safe refuge, and the novel ends with the newborn already showing magical and/or ESP-type powers.
The bad guys will, of course, make another appearance and probably other threats will emerge in the next book. I do look forward to seeing what Roberts comes up with along the way–even if the bit about Lana’s solo/pregnant flight still doesn’t make much sense to me.