Kalahari by Jessica Khoury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Jessica Khoury is one of the better YA writers out there; her books have a strong science fiction focus and take place in unusual and well-fleshed-out settings. (I was also going to say that she doesn't write trilogies, but I discovered this book is third in a loose trilogy, dealing with the same secretive, shady corporation. I haven't read the second book at all, and it's been a while since I read Origin, long enough that I'd completely forgotten about Corpus.) Just as her fantastic treatment of the Amazonian rainforest in Origin, here the Kalahari desert comes alive, from the sounds of the birds to the snakes and scorpions in the grass, from digging up edible roots to bringing down guinea fowl with a sort of primitive boomerang, to facing down a young bull elephant in rut and wriggling into a warthog's burrow.
Sarah Carmichael has spent her entire life traveling the world with her parents, conservation research scientists. In order to gain a grant, she and her father agree to host five American teenagers for two weeks in the Kalahari, where they have been living for the past few years. As the story opens, Sarah is just beginning to recover from her mother's death four months ago. She meets the five city slickers and drives them to her camp (one of the girls, Miranda, upon seeing the primitive campsite, asks plaintively, "Where's the lodge? You promised there would be a lodge"). Her father, Ty Carmichael, hears a report over the radio of poachers in the area and goes to check it out, taking with him the only other adult, the friend of the family and Bushman Theo. He promises Sarah he won't get involved and he'll be back by dark.
Of course, this grand plan doesn't work out at all.
This book is a mixture of a hard-edged survival story and genetic engineering run amuck, in the form of a secret Corpus lab creating something that, in the usual "there are some things humankind was never meant to know" formulation, gets away from its creators. How you feel about the plot as a whole depends primarily on the plausibility of the second half of this proposition, and I must say Khoury comes up a little short here. She tries mightily, and couches her Metalcium (her inorganic "living metal" invention that reminds me of the "liquid metal" in Terminator 2: Judgment Day) in enough handwavium that she almost pulls it off. This Metalcium is actually pretty frightening: it's inorganic but can self-replicate and evolve; it uses lead to sneak past the body's immune system and can copy DNA to create inorganic copies of organic cells; and of course, once it learns to do that, it decides that all those organic cells in the bodies it's infected need to be replaced, which results in lions, giraffes, bush babies, porcupines, mice and eventually humans turning into creatures of living metal before they go insane and die.
All this is well and good, and sets up a taut little thriller, as an infected lion named Androcles escapes from the Corpus lab and leads a chase that collides with our protagonists. Sarah, her father, and the five city kids are caught in the escalating conflict of the Corpus mercenaries' increasingly desperate attempts to contain the situation. They learn of the true stakes about halfway through the book, and the remainder chronicles Sarah's quest to keep herself and her charges alive, find her father, solve the mystery of her mother's death, cross the Kalahari on foot with little food and water, avoid the Corpus bad guys, and attempt to reach civilization--and not incidentally get all of this done before she succumbs to her own Metalcium infection, from inadvertently touching a contaminated bush baby.
The pacing of this book is very good, and the settings and descriptions are excellent. The Kalahari felt totally lived-in, deadly and real. Sarah is a marvelous protagonist, competent, intelligent and in charge, completely at home in primitive conditions and a fish out of water in anything approaching modern life. Sam Quartermain, her love interest--and I must say I appreciated the fact that there wasn't a bloody love triangle in this book; I'm really getting tired of that cliche--is the best characterized of the five city slickers. The others, unfortunately, are not as well fleshed out. However. Khoury blows a mile-wide hole in the plot with her solution to the Metalcium problem--African bee venom? Really? Bees, who most certainly did not evolve to fight this inorganic menace, can neuter it and break it down in Sarah's body (and the bodies of anything infected, animal or human) with a few stings? If the Metalcium is as intelligent and aggressive as it's made out to be, why couldn't it change its own chemical composition to counter the effect of the venom, or simply take over the bees' tiny bodies before the venom can start to affect it? I'm sorry, but after doing such a good job of setting up this implacable foe, the solution was way too easy.
There is a lot to like about this book, and I'm glad I read it. I can for the most part gloss over the plot deficiencies (the fact that I didn't throw the book against the wall is proof of that), but of course other's mileage may vary.
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