**Thank you Little, Brown & Company for my free final copy in exchange for my review. All opinions are my own.**
“Someone coughed intermittently. He sensed the contamination that haunted the room, filled the thickness of the air, was layered on every surface, spread across his open eyes, entered his nose, his body. It was constant, invisible, like a vibration of music. Each bed held danger. His breath became irregular and he began to sweat in his bulky coverall. Certain he was using up a lifetime of blessings, he swore never to put himself at risk again if he escaped infection this time. This clarity shook him. He whispered, “God have mercy. Gospodi-pomiluy,” as if these words were a charm against the plague.”
Based on actual events from 1910 in the Russian-ruled city of Kharbin, a kind of “hub city”, people are succumbing to a mysterious plague in epidemic proportions. The Baron, an aristocratic Russian doctor and the city’s medical commissioner, is fighting against time to figure out a way to contain the disease before it spreads around the world.
I didn’t expect to be captured by this book as much as I was. Admittedly, there were times where I felt a little bored, but as I continued to read, I realized that the author (Jody Shields) had to lay the groundwork in order for the story to earn credibility and to emphasize all the pieces that contributed to this terrifying time in history.
Because of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, I feel like I could quickly identify the limitations the Russians were facing. We have the ability to communicate quickly through phones, internet, 24-hr news channels, and social media. Their communication was very limited; in fact, the Russian officials at times refused to give the people information about the epidemic sweeping their region. There were many reasons for this: medical knowledge just simply wasn’t what it is now, political strategy, and fear.
“The plague has a brilliant strategy,” he said. “It hides so those who are infected spread the bacilli to others without suspicion. It’s a Trojan horse.”
This wasn’t a character-driven story. It was very slow moving, but in a way that explained the many angles at play. I kept imagining myself living in a time where there wasn’t widespread information. Everyone must have lived with such fear – who would be infected next? What was spreading this disease? How do you catch it? How do you avoid it?
I loved the characters in this story; they were so richly developed. There was a bit of A Gentleman in Moscow vibe to the story, but I’m not sure if I just made that connection because this was set near the Russian border. Even so, the writing somewhat reminded me of that book as well.
Overall I enjoyed this book. A slow burn is nice change of pace sometimes. If anything, the Ebola outbreak proves that we are still very cautious when it comes to the spreading of diseases and, while we know so much more than we used to, there are some things beyond human control.