When three dead bodies in perfect health turn up in Dr. Laura Fanning’s morgue, she’s more than a little confused. Not only were the victims in pristine physical condition at time of death, two of them died of no discernible causes at all while the other died in a tragic accident shortly after a miraculous recovery from a terrible disease. Something weird is going on in Suffolk County, and Dr. Fanning finds herself suddenly and inextricably involved, whether she likes it or not.
Elsewhere, a fundamentalist G-man named Nelson Fife and his murderous associate Bradsher are on the hunt for members of a pagan cult brewing up what they call a panacea and what he calls a blasphemous act of Satan. For fifteen centuries the panaceans have doled out their cure all in secret to those chosen by the All-Mother while the Brotherhood acts as inquisitioners, executing panaceans in horrific Old Testament ways for using witchcraft in defiance of God.
A dying billionaire sends Dr. Fanning and her bodyguard, Rick Hayden, off on a wild goose chase around the world to find the source of the panacea, if it even exists. As Fife and Dr. Fanning circle in on their mutual goal, the fatalities mount up and illness strikes the innocent and guilty alike. Through his connections in the CIA (aka the Company), Fife begins isolating Dr. Fanning and Hayden from the outside world and formulates a sinister plan to kill them and steal the panacea for himself. Whoever controls the panacea determines the course of the future, but the cost of securing the concoction may be a price Dr. Fanning is unwilling to pay.
Panacea dances between the hazy border of paranormal and supernatural. It debates between the magic of ancient pagan gods and the implacability of über-intelligent aliens while trussing up the story in a murder mystery turned conspiracy thriller. It is a complex, complicated novel about the battle between good and evil when both sides are morally gray. Dr. Fanning lives in the realm of science, where logic and ethics reign over power and success. If social advancement meant forgoing moral obligation, she’d side with the latter. As would Hayden, for that matter, but he’d probably end up demonstrating his choice through bloodshed. Neither Hayden nor Dr. Fanning want to hurt anyone but will if their lives are at risk. They would rather choose what is morally and ethically right rather than adhere to some arbitrary rule of law. They leave a trail of bodies nearly as long as Fife and Bradsher, with the difference being that they don’t want to kill and Fife and Bradsher enjoy it.
On the other side, the Brotherhood thinks itself the heroes because they are enacting God’s will, while the Company can excuse it’s similar behavior under the pretense of national security. Any and all violence is pardoned and condoned as long as it is used to thwart those who would reject the Lord—or, in the Company’s case, the rule of American law. They operate in a world where good and evil are opposing forces with no middle ground. Except right and wrong are never so straightforward. Stahlman isn’t nearly as extreme as Fife and the CIA, but once he decides he’s willing to let a child die alone so he can keep Dr. Fanning on her quest he plummets down to their depths. No matter what they think, the ends don’t justify the means.
There’s plenty to like about the range of characters in Panacea. Not only is Dr. Fanning a middle-aged woman of color—she’s half Maya, half white—but she’s also refreshingly blunt. She’s a brilliant woman in a peculiar career who isn’t afraid to take on misogynists or speak her mind. Hayden is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He’s a guy with an unhealthy obsession with zip-ties, a grave case of PTSD, and a lot of red in his ledger that he wants to balance out. Fife is the least interesting of the bunch, but his emptiness is part of his personality. His entire life revolves around the Brotherhood and eradicating the panacean cult, and even when he falls deathly ill it only spurns on his professional desperation.
On occasion Wilson suffers from infodump-itis where key characters halt the action to sit around theorizing or working their way through detailed explanations that are pretty obvious to readers who are paying attention. And while the preponderance of coincidences is part of the plot, it comes very close to getting ludicrous. Hayden refers to it as “one degree of separation,” but lampshading it doesn’t ease the eye-rolling. There are so many coincidences that it sometimes feels like the only reason Dr. Fanning and Hayden’s journey is as full of as many exotic locales as it is is so Wilson can activate the “Connected All Along” trope. When coincidences become plot devices it sucks a lot of the fun out of the coincidence.
If there’s one thing the book didn’t need, it’s a grafted on romance. I’ve never understood why writers think a straight man and straight woman can’t work together without wanting to get into each other’s knickers, but it’s tiresome and unnecessary. Heterosexual men and women are capable of platonic, working relationships that don’t devolve into drunken flirtations and longing looks. I could also do without the whole “you’re not like other women” crap Hayden and Stahlman keep hurling at Dr. Fanning. Dudes: women are not a monolith. Stop “cool girl”-ing us.
Wilson has written a challenging novel about lies and liars, hidden truths and buried secrets, and evil seeking redemption and good tainted by corruption and betrayal. The narrative is quick, the characters enthralling, and the resolution open enough to allow for a sequel. Depending on whether you side with Hayden and Dr. Fanning or Fife and the pagans, Panacea is either science fiction or fantasy. But what is certain is that the story itself is intense and gratifying.
Panacea is available now from Tor Books.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.