A prion disease originating at an Alaskan pig farm is causing people to lose their memories. One young woman holds the key to a cure.
It’s a cold winter’s day in rural Iowa when 22-year-old Wynter Roth is unceremoniously booted from the compound of apocalyptic cult New Earth as its founder, Magnus Theisen, looks on. Wynter is devastated, but luckily, Julie, her mother’s former best friend, offers her a home beyond New Earth’s formidable gates. Wynter was a small child when her mother brought her and her sister, Jaclyn, to New Earth, and she was never a thoroughly willing convert. Nonetheless, her faith in God has been inevitably shaped by the ravings of Magnus Theisen, a millionaire and self-styled prophet who has convinced his followers that the end is coming with all the fire and fury of a vengeful God behind it. Soon after Wynter leaves New Earth, people start falling ill with an affliction that causes a form of dementia, and society begins a slow, rolling collapse, helped along by cyberattacks by vaguely defined foreign threats. After Julie’s husband, Ken, conveniently an epidemiologist, is called away to help, Jaclyn—who is married to Magnus—shows up with tissue samples and implores Wynter to get them to a veterinarian in Colorado and get her 5-year-old daughter, Truly, out of New Earth. So, Wynter sets off across a chaotic, increasingly deadly landscape where she eventually meets up with Chase Miller, a handsome ex-Marine who offers help. The book’s strongest sequences, interspersed throughout, take place during Wynter’s formative years at New Earth. Wynter narrates, giving us an eye-opening look at how cults groom their faithful masses, and her integration back into the outside world feels realistic. Christian novelist Lee (Firstborn, 2017, etc.) offers a pragmatic, down-to-earth approach to faith, and Magnus is creepy enough to rival anything that prion disease can throw at poor Wynter. However, Lee misses an opportunity to put a unique spin on stale societal-collapse tropes, and Wynter’s travails will barely make seasoned genre readers flinch.
Lee’s smoothly competent writing can’t save this bland, by-the-numbers race to save the world.