Some time ago, a friend told me about the In Death series written by Nora Roberts under the pseudonym of J.D. Robb, and I decided to give it a try, but unfortunately the story did not work for me: I found that the author favored some telling over showing and often indulged in sudden changes of p.o.v., a technique I don’t exactly approve of. Nothing wrong with either practice, granted, but to me they spoil the enjoyment of a story, so that I moved on – that is, until I saw this book mentioned on a fellow blogger’s post.
Post-apocalyptic scenarios always fascinated me, so I found the premise for Year One quite irresistible, enough to silence any residual misgivings coming from my previous experience. Once again, though, I must give in to the realization that Ms. Roberts’ writing is not my cup of tea…
As I said the premise is intriguing and the novel starts with great momentum: what looks like a strain of avian flu sweeps like wildfire across the world, with a staggering mortality rate. The descriptions of the rapid spread of infection, aided by the worldwide transport network, reminded me of the initial scenes of the ’70s BBC classic Survivors, in my opinion one of the staples of the post-apocalyptic genre, and the ensuing, inevitable collapse of infrastructures all over the world is painted in dramatic flashes that focus on the main characters’ lives and the way they deal with the end of the world.
At some point, however, Ms. Roberts decided to introduce a magical element, something that literally came out of the blue with little or no explanation other than it was a by-product of the pandemic: people start to exhibit peculiar abilities – like lighting fires or flying – and those few who already possessed some, discover that these abilities are enhanced and growing every day. It was somehow jarring, I’ll admit it, because in my opinion this element had little or no place in the description of the end of the world as we know it, but I decided to take it in stride and see how it would develop. Sadly, it failed to integrate with the rest of the narrative, in my opinion, in great measure because I kept seeing it as a mashup of incompatible themes: as a civilization literally falls, the appearance of ladies riding unicorns or Tinkerbell-like pixies (I kid you not…) takes away the drama from the depicted events and becomes dangerously close to ludicrous, and just as unbelievable as character Lana, who “graduates” from lighting candles with her mind to shifting heavy objects (like a moving bridge) with no explanation whatsoever for this amazing escalation.
This alone should not have been enough to stop me from forging on, particularly because the few ominous mentions of immune people being rounded up and disappearing from the face of the Earth – probably being experimented on in search of a cure – added a new, scary facet to the overall drama, as did the mounting violence that always comes when social infrastructures weaken or cease to exist. Still, problems kept piling up: for example, in this novel people seem to be divided into two groups, the ‘good guys’, who are unfailingly, immutably good; and the bad ones, who are irredeemably evil. There is no space for gray areas, for people wavering between the brutal needs for survival and the tenets of humanity, and this robs characters of believability, transforming them into cardboard cutouts instead of the flesh-and-blood people I always want to care for (or even hate, why not?) in a book.
And again, some behavioral choices don’t add up when compared with the seriousness of the situation, so that they strike a jarring note I was unable to ignore. Some examples? Lovers Lana and Max are preparing to leave New York city, before it becomes to late for that, and they gather some necessary items for the road: when going out to procure a couple of backpacks, Max comes back with an appropriate camouflage-colored one for himself, and a pink-hued one for Lana, as a cute gesture – because of course if one wants to avoid calling attention to themselves, pink is the perfect choice, and you need to be cute when the end of the world draws near! Or take the example of journalist Arlys and her intern Fred (i.e. Miss “Hey, I’m a pixie! Cool!”) who are leaving as well, knowing they might be hunted down for a number of reason I won’t list here: as they grab what supplies they can, Fred adds makeup items to their stores, as if unwilling to face the end of the world without looking at their best. Seriously?
Add to that a few obvious plot devices, or some dialogues that are at times quite cringe-worthy and you have the perfect recipe for a huge disappointment: I had tried very hard not to compare Year One to my favorite novels on this subject, Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, but at some point it was impossible not to, and this novel came up quite short of the mark, so I gave up the struggle at around 50% of the road.