My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Length: 720 pages
Release date: 5 April 2017
A young man arrives at a remote hospital. He’s burning with fever and barely conscious. He’s also bleeding from his eyes.
Fearing an Ebola-like outbreak, the World Health Organisation scrambles a rapid response team headed by leading epidemiologist Dr. Peyton Shaw. But what she finds in Kenya is beyond her worst fears. The world is facing an outbreak quite unlike anything previously documented. In just two weeks’ time a disease with a 95 percent fatality rate will infect every corner of the planet.
To find a cure, Dr. Shaw must trace the origin of the pathogen. But with each passing hour, her suspicions grow: this outbreak is no natural catastrophe.
At 700-odd pages, Pandemic is not a light read. Picking up a book of this size is a significant investment of time, not one I make without a significant hook. To A.G. Riddle’s credit, Pandemic has that hook. With an absolutely riveting opening that promises catastrophe as well as suspense, it begins on a stellar note. Less fortunately, as with many self-published novels, Pandemic eventually misplaces tight plotting and editing and unravels into an overly long, convoluted mess.
The opening act is exciting and contains an appropriate amount of tension, although the reliance on amnesia comes off somewhat a lazy trope. That said, the alternating scenes of Peyton scrambling to cull an unprecedented outbreak in the villages of Kenya and Desmond running from shadowy enemies in the streets of Berlin make for a quality thriller. Riddle captures the essence of both locations with lifelike lucidness that isn’t afforded any other setting for the rest of the book. His plot is well-researched and brings in elements from an impressive range of disciplines, even if they aren’t manipulated in the most convincing ways.
From there, it goes downhill. Apparently, Riddle’s obsession with conspiracy theories is carried over from the Origin Mystery series, and what initially promises to be a grounded sci-fi thriller soon morphs into ludicrous Dan Brown-style speculation involving millennia-old clandestine societies. Honestly, when I think about Pandemic I can’t help but be reminded of Digital Fortress, also ostensibly centred on a brilliant female scientist who’s actually described as a “swimsuit model” by the author. Blegh.
As if Pandemic‘s premise isn’t already syrup-sticky on the way down, Riddle exacerbates the outlandishness with a number of coincidences that beg suspension of disbelief. In fiction, coincidences that get your characters into trouble are good but coincidences that rescue them from it are unacceptable, and Pandemic has too many of the latter. Far less often do characters solve their own problems than are they bailed out by a lucky twist. Both of these coincidences, however, pale in comparison to the one trope that Riddle can’t seem to let go of–coincidences where every single person the bland main character is related to proves to be involved with the apocalyptic conspiracy in one way or another. The first time is clever. The second time is comfortable. The third time, it’s become a stale cliché. Next, you’re going to be telling me that the guppy she owned in third grade is actually the cure to the plague.
By the end, the constant revelations make you wonder how the supposedly genius main character could have been so ignorant of all the secrets surrounding her. In a way it makes sense, because Peyton really shouldn’t be the protagonist of this book. For the supposed lead role, she acts a lot like an accessory. She’s developed with a strong character at the start but her personality gradually erodes over the course of the story until she’s little more than a glorified weepy MacGuffin. The synopsis should instead indicate Desmond Hughes as the protagonist. The author is clearly much more engaged in his story, considering the compelling background and motivations he displays.
There are various other issues that become evident over the book’s length, which would frankly be a monumental task to manage for all but the most skilled writers. Pandemic‘s second half gets bogged down in tons of unnecessary flashbacks that belong less in a speculative thriller than in a contemporary romance. Dialogue often suffers from lack of clarity as to who is speaking. Conversations go many lines without dialogue tags, which wouldn’t be a problem if not for the repeated occurrence of the same character speaking consecutive lines when alternating speakers would be expected.
For all these criticisms, I still finished Pandemic in less than three days. It’s that kind of easy read, good entertainment as long as you don’t think too hard. To that end I recommend reading in a short span of time the way I did, or else you’ll probably start forgetting what happened earlier on. Fans of Dan Brown will likely appreciate this mix of fast-paced action, grandiose plots and short chapters.