The Red Death – Birgitte Märgen

*I received a free copy of this book, with thanks to the author.  The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*

Blurb: DEATH HAS A NEW COLOR

A fast-paced, gripping thriller in the tradition of Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, and James Rollins, THE RED DEATH is a thriller fueled by the re-emergence of an ancient plague that gave rise to the Black Death–and the people trying to stop it. The question is: How do you stop something that you can’t see?

AN ANCIENT DISEASE re-emerges in the heart of New York City–a deadly bacteria that gave rise to the Black Death. Maggie De Luca, an epidemiologist who is fighting her own demons, works to uncover clues to contain the disease, but is always one step behind–her fate determined by the flip of a coin. Microbiologist Michael Harbinger believes he can make a vaccine that can stop the disease, but to do so would require an elusive plant that only grows in a remote region of the Amazon.

With the help of J.D. Stallings, a paleoanthropologist, and Samantha Boutroux, a bacteriologist, they set out to find the plant that holds the key before the Red Death pandemic grips the world–or has the First Horseman of the Apocalypse, Plague, already opened the gates to our final annihilation?

The mother of all plagues is back. 
Let the death toll begin . . .

You can’t get more topical at the moment than a story about a deadly, airborne pandemic, and The Red Death is terrifying in both the speed and symptoms it presents, so I would be a little cautious in reading it if you are currently struggling with lockdown anxiety or any pneumatic symptoms!

The story begins with following a simple silver coin from one hand to another, as the new plague begins to spread and its effects gradually begin to be noticed and then feared. From there, the story has two separate, but related, strands: Maggie’s urban investigation of the causes of the spread of the disease, and Harbinger, Stallings and Boutroux’s jungle investigations to attempt to find a cure or vaccine.

I really enjoyed the medical section of the story – despite my abject terror of the subject matter – and was fascinated by Maggie’s ‘visions’… I would have like more detail and backstory on this phenomenon, than we ended up getting.

In contrast, the jungle adventure left me a bit cold. I really wasn’t keen on the idea that the “bad” natives, described as the splinter group, are the ones who follow their traditional cultural practices and beliefs, while the “good” natives wear western clothes and follow westernized, ‘socially-acceptable’ cultural practices. The author attempts to address this problem via an inner monologue from one of the characters, deploring missionary colonialist tendencies, but I don’t see how the missionaries handing out slogan t-shirts and encouraging Christian prayer was any different from him handing out wristwatches and encouraging animal sacrifice instead of human? It all smacked a little too much of ‘white saviour syndrome’, which combined with some sexism, homophobia and misogyny to leave a sour taste in my mouth.

The ending, too, felt a little rushed and anticlimactic after the slow build up at the start. There are a few moments of brief drama at the climax, followed by an epilogic summing-up in ‘where are they all now’ style, which fell a little flat after the previous excitement of blood, bodies and biohazards.

That said, I am glad that in the circumstances in which I read this book (in the middle of a global pandemic, pre-vaccine) that this offered a hopeful solution, even with the few cautionary caveats attached. I would recommend this if you’re looking for a plausibly terrifying pandemic thriller and are confident in your physical and mental health, and would recommend you avoid it if you have even so much as a cold… I was flinching at every sniffle for about a week!

Maggie De Luca read the email again from the CDC. She had read it numerous times, but she still couldn’t believe the words she was seeing: UNKNOWN BACTERIA, PLAGUE PRECAUTIONS. The medical examiner was right, it seemed the CDC didn’t even know exactly what they were dealing with. If this was a new strain of a plague-like bacteria, then the death toll could be much higher if it wasn’t contained.
The mortality rate of the pneumonic plague is 100 percent if antibiotics are not given within the first 24 hours. An even larger problem is that antibiotics are not as effective against pneumonic plague and could be completely ineffective in the new bacteria. Since this unknown bacteria was airborne, it added a whole new level of problems, especially in a city the size of New York.

– Birgitte Märgen, The Red Death

You can follow Birgitte Märgen on Goodreads and Twitter, or check out my review of her teen fantasy novel, Evie and the Upside-Down World of Nevermore here.

The Red Death is available on Amazon right now!

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