Brandt plumbs the depths of suspense, pathology, and ancient history in this debut novel, at once a fierce academic thriller and a powerful meditation on humanity.
The story begins slowly, weaving effortlessly through the intertwined lives of students at the fictitious Catoctin College as familiar fears parade in the background. But threats of a new flu pandemic and a rash of mass shootings seem far away to characters struggling with personal relationships and burgeoning academic and professional careers. Nevertheless, these background details—as well as the clever vignettes that begin each chapter, expanding on everything from the area’s geography to the foundations of democracy—clearly map out and foreshadow the events to come and the novel’s themes. When Dr. Ben Appelstein, chair of the school’s ancient studies program, gets a research grant for an archaeological dig in Iraq, four of his students jump at the chance to go with him. But while the possibility of rediscovering lost pieces of ancient civilizations has great appeal, none of them anticipate the dangers they’ll face, nor the irreparable changes they’ll unleash on the world—particularly a mysterious disease that amplifies strength at the expense of reason. The characters, who come from a variety of backgrounds, are remarkably well-wrought and engaging. The narrative jumps among different perspectives, and readers begin to see each character through the others’ eyes, with all their unique and compelling personalities, histories, fears, and traumas. But above all, what the narrative explores is desire—for each other and for personal accomplishment. Among such everyday desperations and sacrifices, the disease—which gives even as it takes—becomes truly compelling.
A striking, frightening debut that heralds the start of a promising career.