Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shadowstrike! Fire Will Fall by Carol Plum-Ucci

...I threw myself onto my bed but couldn't bang all the bad words out of my head even when covering it with four bed pillows. VaporStrike, house fire, tularemia, funeral, hackers, terrorists, nosebleed, bleed out, Omar... Shutting the light out only made the images grow stronger...Bloody tissues, morphine drips, hypodermic needles... Peace, embedded in that dream of a condo down in the marshes of Trinity was all I'd ever wanted.

It is May of 2002. Memories of September 11, 2001, followed by the unsolved anthrax attacks, still haunt the nation, and for the Trinity Four, the four survivors of a bioterrorist attack on quiet Trinity Falls, New Jersey, the horror is still with them every moment. Kept alive by a drug regimen concocted by scientists around the world, their hope of ever having a normal life is dashed by recurring "headaches from Hell," pain and fatigue, and debilitating fevers which come and go. After two months of hospital care, the four are moved to a safe house near the Jersey Shore under constant medical care and surveillance by the agents of USIC charged with their protection.

Each of the four reacts to their forced confinement in his or her own way. Scott, at 19, is the most worldly of the four, accustomed to having and doing what he wants when he wants it. Rain, longing for anormal family life with kids and a minivan, cries continually and talks uncontrollably when she's not weeping. Cora simply craves a quiet, obscure life in Trinity Falls, but is haunted, waking and sleeping, by the ghost of the drugged-out mother she still hates and fears, dead in the initial poisoned water attack on the town. Owen, Scott's younger brother, is the sickest of the group and openly despairs of this world, longing for a Biblical end in an Apocalypse which will bring in a new world order in which he hopes to find a better life.

All friends in what they now see as their former normal lives, the Four are involved in complex and tense interactions with each other. Two couples are half in love, but with no certain future and no way to relate to each other physically, relationships are difficult.

But unknown to the Four, the terrorists of ShadowStrike are not finished with them, testing a new and virulent version of tularemia which they hope to unleash in a blaze of notoriety by infecting the Trinity Four with their new plague. Although the secret agents of USIC doubt the terrorists are a danger to the Four, two undercover operatives, teen super-hackers Tyler Ping and "The Kid" are working below the radar with USIC to track the bioterrorists' leaders VaporStrike and Omar. The danger level goes to red when the they pick up cryptic emails which convince them that Shadowstrike is positioning themselves to infect the Four with a designer iteration of tularemia which kills and destroys the corpse down to the skeleton within a few hours of infection.

Then events occur which force the Trinity Four into a new crisis. Walking with Owen, Rain comes upon the strange skeletal remains of a goat missing only since morning, and when she touches the goat's belled collar she receives a sudden burning sensation which Scott diagnoses and immediately treats as a snakebite. Meanwhile, Tyler and The Kid realize that their IP address has been made by the terrorists and escape from them only by faking their own deaths in a catastrophic fire which destroys all evidence where they had been working. Fleeing with a few printouts of emails spelling out the plan for bioterrorist attacks in which Rain's infection is only the first step, the two make for the safe house in hopes of saving the Four before it is too late.

In her sequel to Streams of Babel, Carol Plum-Ucci's just-published Fire Will Fall (Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, 2010) has constructed both an insightful story of young people trying to work their way into mature relationships and a page-turning thriller which puts these characters into the crucible of a world-wide terrorist attack. Knowledge of the characters established in her first book is not required, but is an advantage in reading this book: the opening exposition is divided into separate first-person narratives from each of the Four, and because each sees their past and present situation differently, the opening chapters require some careful reading to bring the characters, their conflicts and connections, into clear focus. However, with the introduction of the additional distinct narratives of Tyler and The Kid, the pace of the novel builds to a riveting climax in the final showdown with their mutual enemy.

The author's conclusion leaves some critical strands of the plot unresolved: Rain is pregnant and hopeful that she will be able bring Owen's child to term, and Cora realizes that she loves Scott but needs time to make her peace with her unresolved relationship with her dead but inescapable mother's presence. A sequel is definitely a possibility here.

The reviewer for Kirkus gives this one a wholehearted thumbs up: "This sequel to the outstanding Streams of Babel (2008) more than lives up to its predecessor's standard. A taut read, it's hard to put down, with characters readers will care about and plenty of momentum. Humor is deftly woven into both character development and dialogue, lightening the mood at just the right spots. A must-read, all-too-contemporary page-turner."

Carol Plum-Ucci has been both an Edgar Allan Poe Award finalist and a Printz Honor Award winner for her first novel, The Body of Christopher Creed, a sequel for which, Just Another Taste of Steepleton, is forthcoming in the spring of 2011.

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