This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. I also completely understand why this book seems not to have worked for many of my fellow reviewers. It’s not a traditional narrative with characters who have arcs. The main focus of the book is The Wrack, a mysterious illness that is sweeping the world. The reader follows The Wrack as it progresses from patient zero all the way to it’s eventual resolution.
Bierce has 3 very difficult jobs to do in a little over 200 pages:
He needs to establish a fantasy world and it’s rules. Magic is a thing in this world and I think that’s an excellent choice for reasons I’ll elaborate on later.
He needs to explain the disease, it’s symptoms, and it’s spread.
He needs to show how different cultures and political structures react to the disease.
The text throws a lot at you in the beginning and expects you to keep up. Things slow down in the middle. We take a break from the major players on the front lines of fighting the disease to view a series of vignette chapters that tell the stories of individuals living through this time from vastly different perspectives. Things pick back up again toward the final act as we follow a new cast of main players who ultimately unravel the mystery of the disease.
The book gives the reader a God’s-eye-view of The Wrack epidemic. Zooming in and out as needed. This is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but I loved the way it came together.
Bierce obviously did his homework for this novel. There are so many parallels to real life disease and outbreak. The mystery in this book plays out like an Agatha Christie novel. The clues are there. The mystery is solvable, but the revelation still made me go “aha!”
I happened to read this book at a time when I had just lived *fingers crossed* through a pandemic, and was also masochistically reading about The Black Death. Telling a story like this in a fantasy setting where magic is demonstrably real is such a great way to show how disorienting plague outbreaks must have been to people in the past. Bierce had me ready to believe that The Wrack might actually be some sort of magical ailment or divine punishment. It is not, and there is a perfectly rational explanation if only one keeps one’s head. How hard must that be to do in a world where you don’t understand microbiology? This book really helped me to put myself in the position of a medieval person in a way no non-fiction book has.
I think if a reader is willing to accept this book on it’s own terms, and not go in with too many preconceived notions about how a fantasy book should be structured, it is very interesting. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes serious fantasy aimed at an adult (as opposed to young adult) audience.