To call this novel ‘surprising’ would be a massive understatement: what began as a story set in a dystopian future soon turned into something else, something very unexpected – and this sudden twist ended up enhancing my enjoyment of the story, to which I happily sacrificed some sleep just to see where it would lead me in the end.
War-torn Earth of the near-future is in a sorry state indeed: after the first bomb, named Chrysalis with a notable display of gallows humor, many others fell, unleashing destruction and death. The people now living in the Grey Zones, the ones where radioactive contamination struck more heavily, are in constant need of blood to survive and, if lucky, to recover, therefore a national program of blood donations has been instituted, driven by Patriot, an organization that coordinates the distribution of blood to the needy.
Blood donation has become mandatory: according to Patriot’s newscasts, each day there is a quota to be filled so that the needy people in the Grey Zones can be saved, and every adult must contribute. To implement the scheme, wages and food distribution are linked to blood donation so, in short, citizens can either supply their quota, or go hungry. What’s worse, the value of an individual’s blood depends on its type: the O group being at the top of the chain, since they are universal donors, and the AB negatives finding themselves at the very bottom, given the diminished demand for their blood. In other words, if type O citizens can live a moderately comfortable life, AB-negs exist on the very threshold of starvation.
Willa Wallace is a phlebotomist, working in one of the many blood-donation centers where citizens go to fulfill their “civic duty”, her only focus that of providing for her grandson Isaiah, the only surviving member of Willa’s family after her daughter died from anaemia due to far too many blood donations. One day, however, something brings her out of her self-imposed shell: the fall of a blood-carrying drone leads her to a momentous discovery that will forever change her life, as well as her knowledge and perception of the world.
And no, I’m not going to tell you what this discovery is, because this is the huge twist I mentioned at the beginning and it’s only right and proper that you find out on your own… 😉
Plot being off-limits, I can concentrate on the characters, starting with Willa: she is a… narrative exception, in that she’s in her sixties and a grandmother, as far from “hero material” as one could imagine, which makes her transformation into a rule-breaker and a warrior quite surprising but at the same time very believable, because she gets there by degrees, arriving at such changes from the sum of her experiences, her wisdom and the care-giving core at the basis of her personality and chosen work. It’s this last element, the compulsion to keep her grandson (and later on other children) safe that transforms her from nondescript older citizen into a determined, and sometimes ruthless, fighter – and I loved to see Willa literally take up arms and show no mercy to those who wanted to harm her own.
Grandma Willa is not the only compelling character in The Phlebotomist, though, because she is flanked by two other wonderful figures: Lock (short from her nickname “The Locksmith”), a middle-aged ex marine who fights Patriot’s influence from several underground locations, and who teams with Willa once the grim reality of their world is revealed. I loved Lock’s devil-may-care attitude in the direst of situations, and the way she always seems ready to provide a technical solution to their problems – or an explosive one. And finally there is Kathy, a teenager the two women have rescued from an appalling situation, a girl who had to grow beyond her years and is not afraid of fighting and killing, but still shows some heart-breaking frailties. This triumvirate of women of different ages, from different walks of life, is the true heart of the story and the force that drives it to the end.
There is another character I want to mention, one who complements this very unusual group and one I felt for very strongly: Everard, one of Lock’s associates and the main caregiver for a group of orphaned children that the outlaws are trying to raise despite many difficulties. Again I can’t say any more about his story-arc because of spoilers, except that it touched me deeply and showed in no uncertain terms how hideously cruel this world is.
The world in which this cast of characters moves is both terrible and intriguing: humanity always found ways to fracture itself into separate groups, to establish various levels of classification and worth, and here it’s the very essence of life that creates these differences – blood is blood, it’s the substance running in the veins of every human being on Earth, and yet this dystopian society has found a way of using it to create breaches inside society, sometimes pitting humans against each other, because in Willa’s world blood muggings are a dire reality. There is no authorial comment about this situation, but it’s far too easy to extrapolate one from the story, and to have to acknowledge the sad truth that we are still unable to go past more or less artificial ways of classifying ourselves within a system of values…
Unless I’m mistaken, The Phlebotomist is its author’s debut novel: with such an impressive start I can only look forward to read more of his works soon, especially if he will choose to return to this world – the ending is an open one, and that hopefully leaves room enough for a sequel.