THE PLAGUE TALES
by Ann Benson
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ann Benson's first novel, The Plague Tales, begs to be compared to Connie Willis's Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Doomsday Book (1992). Benson's novel not only holds its own against Willis's work, but surpasses it. Both novels have sections set in fourteenth- and twenty-first century England. Both novels deal with plagues in both eras and both novels have surface similarities in plot.
The Plague Tales follow Janie Crowe, an American archaeologist/doctor who is working on her Ph.D. He dissertation research brings her to London where she inadvertently releases yersina pestis, the bubonic plague bacteria, into the atmosphere. In the modern world, this wouldn't cause a problem. Outbreaks of bubonic plague can be routinely treated with antibiotics. In Benson's world, however, antibiotics have not been effective since an epidemic called the Outbreak.
Parallel to Crowe's high-tech futuristic tale, Benson relates the story of Alejandro Canches, a fourteenth-century Jewish physician in Aragon who has been found guilty of grave-robbing and dissecting a human body by the Christian courts. Alejandro flees his native land just as the first outbreaks of Bubonic Plague are occurring along the French and Spanish coasts.
Linking the two is the plot of land in London and a dormant yersina pestis sample. During her researched, Janie excavated a small piece of linen which was infected with the bacteria. Through an unlikely series of events, the y pestis was raised from its slumber to infect modern London.
Although the story of Alejandro is more captivating, Benson displays an ignorance of the Medieval Judaism. Her Jews routinely masquerade as a Christians, have no compunction (even when not pretending to be a Christian) against eating non-Kosher foods, and are completely irreligious. While it is fair to say that not all Jews in the Medieval period were excessively devout, it is incorrect to represent Jews who were as assimilated as Alejandro.
Benson's portrayal of the near future London is more mundane as she shows Janie and her colleagues leaping through bureaucratic hoops trying to continue Janie's research while unaware of the horror they have released. As with Willis's Doomsday Book, a technological failure to communicate plays an essential role in advancing the plot. However, while Willis was willing to play an unlikely series of events for satiric value, Benson disrupts communications between Janie and the British Institute of Science in a much more believable manner.
The Plague Tales is an ambitious first novel, and, while Benson doesn't succeed on all levels, she tells a well-written, plot-driven story. Although Benson's grasp on Medieval society could be firmer and she occasionally includes something in the twenty-first century portion which will drop the reader out of the story, on the whole, she tells not one, but two, good stories.
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