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In this world, a plague has swept the world, gradually killing most of the populace: "Humans infected with White Horse mutated in unpredictable ways. Ninety percent died. Of the remaining ten percent, maybe half were immune. The other five mutated in a way that was survivable. Unless pushed by career or some other drive...humans are not nocturnal...But in this leftover world, in the dying gasp of humanity, some things now hunt at night." At first, people blame the disease on any available scapegoat, from government conspiracy to poison in the water supply to processed foods. A cable television evangelist eventually names the plague "White Horse," for the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6. Here is the preacher's description: "The first seal is opened and the white horse has come with its deadly rider to test us with Satan's disease.....This plague is the white horse. And the other three are coming." (p. 25) Eventually, though, the survivors learn the much more insidious truth. Scientists announce that "White Horse is not a disease as such. It's a mutation. Some outside source has flipped switches in our DNA, turning on some genes, turning off others." (p. 26) And what was the "outside source" that started the plague? That's the primary question to be answered in book 1.
Along with the plague comes an international war that begins when China destroys the Internet and all electronic communications. Soon the disease becomes so severe that there are not enough soldiers left to fight the war, and the survivors are left to make the best of their lives.
The heroine is Zoe Marshall, a 30-year-old widow who works as a janitor at Pope Pharmaceuticals in New York City. Before her husband's tragic death in an automobile accident, Zoe had a professional career, but now she wants a job with no responsibilities—one that offers her time to think about her life.
BOOK 1: White Horse
As the book opens, Zoe comes home from work to find that someone has bypassed her alarm system, entered her apartment, and left a sealed ceramic jar in her living room. When Zoe looks at the jar, she feels a unexplainable sense of terror. Calls to her security company, her landlord, and the police result only in head-shaking and suggestions that there is no crime against someone leaving you a surprise gift. Zoe, however, is beginning to worry about her own sanity, so she goes to a psychologist for therapy sessions, telling him that she dreams about the terrible vase because she's afraid he'll think she really is crazy if she tells him the truth.
After the first scene in which Zoe finds the jar, the book alternates between short sections entitled NOW and THEN. The THEN strand documents Zoe's life during the beginning stages of the plague and moves back and forth in time during the 18 months prior to the beginning of the NOW strand. The NOW strand moves along chronologically until the very end, when the two strands meet—or collide. The author handles this structure beautifully, playing out the clues and the action in each strand so that they allow the reader to follow the progression of Zoe's determination to maintain her humanity while keeping her own self preservation at the forefront. Ironically, one of the major themes of the book relates to the meaning of humanity. Who is human, and who isn't? Are human traits related solely to physical form?
The NOW strand follows Zoe from the very beginning of the plague through her therapy sessions with Dr. Nick Rose, to whom she is attracted. Luckily, that attraction is mutual, although it takes awhile for their relationship to get off the ground, what with the plague and the war and all. Eventually, Nick goes to Greece to find his parents. Soon thereafter, Zoe heads for Europe, traveling from Italy to Greece, where she hopes she will find that Nick is still alive. During Zoe's scenes in New York at the beginning of the plague, we watch her deal with her fears about the mysteriously threatening jar, worry about the disappearance of the cats of New York, and delve into some sinister happenings at Pope Pharmaceuticals.
The THEN strand begins with Zoe in Italy, where she picks up a traveling companion, Lisa, a young, sexually abused blind girl. The two head out for a Mediterranean seaport where they plan to board a ship for Greece. Unfortunately, they meet up with a Swiss man on the road who turns out to be a sociopath who becomes obsessed with Zoe and Lisa.
This is a terrific story, with its intricately structured interweaving of the two strands and an elegantly written, metaphorically rich narrative. Zoe tells her story in the first person, and Adams handles that POV masterfully. The book reminded me somewhat of Stephen Kings' The Stand, with its fully developed cast of characters and its inventive post-apocalyptic world-building. Adams writes with elegance and dark humor, punctuating her narration and dialogue with punchy references to popular culture as well as metaphors relating to history and literature. The clues and surprises keep coming all the way up to the very last line of the book, so please don't cheat and read that first.
I gave this book a level 5 rating in violence for several brief graphic scenes involving rape, incest, and murder.
Click HERE to read an excerpt from White Horse. Click HERE to go to the WHITEHORSE web site where you can view two video messages from Zoe, one from NOW and one from THEN. You can also follow Zoe's journey on an interactive map and read more about the White Horse disease.