Tuesday 15 May 2018
#CBR10 Book 39: "Pestilence" by Laura Thalassa
Rating: 3 stars
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse came to Earth and in their wake, there was destruction. Engines stopped working, planes fell from the sky, technology sputtered and the internet failed. There was chaos, and then people learned to adapt. Five years later, only one horseman is active - Pestilence the Conqueror, who rides the length and breadth of the American continent, with whole cities dying where he's appeared. In a small settlement in Canada, Sara Burns is a volunteer firefighter who literally drew the short straw when she and her remaining colleagues decided who was to sacrifice themselves to kill the horseman. While it goes against her every instinct to harm anyone, in order to save the rest of humanity, Sara is willing to do what she can to stop Pestilence. She lays an ambush and shoots the horseman off his horse, dousing him with petrol and setting him on fire for good measure. Unfortunately, the horseman cannot be killed and is rather furious at the treatment he received.
Once the horseman has regenerated, he takes Sara prisoner and is determined to make her suffer. Normally anyone who gets anywhere near Pestilence takes ill and dies within four days, but Sara stays untouched by the plague that normally affects people. She's tied up and forced to run behind the horseman's steed until she collapses with exhaustion. When she tries to escape, he shoots her multiple times with his arrows and then patches her back up again, refusing to let her die. For trying to murder him, and refusing to show mercy when he asked it of her, he will keep her alive, forcing her to see up close the ravages of the disease he spreads on the people they encounter on their journey. While Sara may not get sick, she still requires food and shelter and can get dangerously chilled if they don't stop to let her eat and rest. While many houses are abandoned (communities seem to send out evacuation notices when they know that Pestilence and his horse are near), they frequently find people in the houses they enter. These people are not spared from sickness and Sara has to live with the knowledge that her human needs are what brings Pestilence into their homes. She has to watch men, women and children sicken and die, usually cursing her as they suffer.
Trying to escape is futile, yet as she spends more time with the unstoppable horseman and his horse, she finds out more about him and his feelings towards his gruesome task. Before taking her prisoner, it's quite clear Pestilence knew little of humans, and had a very pessimistic view of humanity as a whole. The longer they spend together, the more the lines blur in their relationship. Feelings begin to develop between them, unwilling as they both are to admit attraction to the other. How can Sara love a creature sent to bestow divine punishment on humanity? And can Pestilence be stopped from fulfilling his duty, allowing some of humankind to survive?
I'd not really heard of this book until it was selected as a monthly read in Vaginal Fantasy (which as of last month will sadly no longer have the monthly video hangouts with Felicia Day and her co-hosts, but just exist online on Goodreads and Discord) and after browsing some reviews, I was intrigued. It wasn't very expensive on Kindle and with the premise - literal immortal embodiment of Pestilence comes to Earth, takes lady prisoner - they fall in love - I wanted to see how that was going to work. The answer is, surprisingly well.
For much of the book, the book deals with two individuals who have a decidedly antagonistic relationship. They travel at punishing pace throughout fairly abandoned areas, only occasionally interacting with others (who all get sick and die, so that really brings out the cheer and pleasant conversation). Frankly, when Pestilence and Sara do approach cities or larger populated areas, that's when things get really dangerous, as Sara is clearly not the only one trying to kill the horseman. While he's immortal and will regenerate from pretty much nothing, Sara is very much a mortal. She's affected by the elements, she starves if she's not fed enough (and in the beginning, Pestilence has absolutely NO idea what is actually good or suitable to eat. He tries to feed her things like Worcester sauce and tinned sardines and he doesn't understand things like hypothermia (until Sara nearly dies from it).
Based on the description of the characters, my mental image of Pestilence was petty much Lee Pace as Thranduil from The Hobbit movies, while Sara was very much Wynnona from Wynnona Earp. She had the same kind of wise-cracking internal monologue and the tough kick-ass attitude. It is rather fascinating seeing the merciless and uncaring Pestilence slowly start learning what it's like to be a person as he spends time with Sara and sees that not all humans are hopeless and care for nothing. Because he's not human, he can be hurt, but regenerate from almost nothing, and he's not affected by things like hunger, thirst or the elements. Nevertheless, he eventually tries both food and alcohol at Sara's prompting and is rather baffled at his growing attraction to her.
The main problem with this book is that we're meant to root for a romance where one party is the literal embodiment of disease and plague. He kills literally millions over the course of the book, even after admitting that he hates the suffering his presence brings. While it's quite clear that he can control who gets ill or not (since he can keep Sara both from catching the plague, and her wounds from getting infected), it's difficult to really see him as a worthwhile hero - cause you know, genocide. He's not exactly kind and gentle with Sara throughout the first half of the book, either, but you know, she tried to kill him and burn his corpse - which wasn't exactly great either. Overall, the tone throughout the book is very grim, and Ms. Thalassa makes it even more difficult to get over Pestilence's actions in that she actually spends quite some time with some of the plague victims, making it all the more horrible when they die. I found the HEA or possibly, HFN, difficult to entirely believe in, considering the premise set up in the rest of the book.
I was, however, pretty engrossed as I was reading the book. I kept wanting to finish just one more chapter to see what was going to happen, and it's only thinking back on the book - the redemption of Pestilence doesn't work for me. It wasn't like the book was terribly expensive, though, and I am curious enough that I may well check out the next book in the series - introducing War.
Judging a book by its cover: Sara is a firefighter and doesn't really seem like the type to wear flowy balldresses (she certainly doesn't at any point in the story, as far as I can remember), but I guess it creates a more romantic visual than if she's in dusty, scruffed up clothes like jeans and a flannel shirt, or the hand-me-downs she seems to find along the way while taken from place to place with Pestilence. I actually really like the cover image, but it suggests a more historical romance than this book presents.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.