Thomas Kelso has been practicing orthopedic surgery since 1998, but medicine and science were not at all what he originally set out to do. “I was a child of the ’70s and couldn’t quite figure out what was going on in my life,” Kelso says of his early studies that drifted between engineering and the liberal arts. In his senior year at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Kelso took an elective class on exercise physiology. “I became obsessed with biology, physiology, and biochemistry.” That class ignited a passion that led him to a Ph.D., medical school, and, most recently, his latest novel, the biomedical thriller Hyperion’s Fracture.

The author now lives on North Carolina’s southeastern coast, but growing up as a Navy brat, he attended more than nine different schools in various cities, including Washington, D.C., and Honolulu. One advantage to the constant moves: a lifelong love of reading. His eventual interest in science and medicine got him hooked on Michael Crichton, whom Kelso calls his personal hero. “He had this dual interest in writing and science, which I’ve had at least my whole adult life. I really wanted to write a book…that played to my strengths.”

With the release of Fractured in 2018, Kelso introduced readers to Mark Thurman and Claire Hodgson, respectively an orthopedic trauma surgeon and a wunderkind synthetic biology expert. In Fractured, Mark and Claire manage to create bone tissue in a lab, healing complicated fractures in just days. “This is technology that’s becoming mainstream,” Kelso explains of the cutting-edge 3-D–printing technique Claire creates. “Scientists are figuring out how to make specific types of tissue….Instead of using an ink cartridge, you load the cartridge with cells and you just print the tissue.”

Fast-forward to Hyperion’s Fracture, in which Claire and Mark find themselves facing an entirely different challenge with a new kind of patient, a racehorse named Hyperion:

Thirty minutes later, Mark followed Grant out of the surgical locker room. The scent of Timothy hay and horses contrasted with the aseptic hospital environment he was used to. They were dressed in surgical scrubs and walked into the anesthesia preoperative staging area. Hyperion stood in a stall on three hooves. His right rear limb was held off the ground, protected in the Kimzey splint….After an agonizing ten minutes the horse was in position against the well-padded wall in the anesthesia room….Then the anesthesiologist inserted an endotracheal tube four times bigger than what was typically used on humans.

“That’s a damn radiator hose,” Mark said. 

While watching a documentary about the tragic life of racehorse Barbaro, Kelso realized that treating a horse would be the perfect next step for his fictional doctors. “I started thinking that the unique thing about horses is that if they break a leg, they’re euthanized just like they would have been 200 years ago,” Kelso says. “We really haven’t fixed that problem yet.” So Hyperion’s Fracture begins with the wizards trying to adapt their medical technique to save a beloved racehorse.

While the half-ton of differences between humans and horses throws Mark a bit, those characteristics were actually already in Kelso’s wheelhouse from when he conducted research for his Ph.D. in physiology at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Kelso thought carefully and clinically about what tools or medications his leads would realistically need to accomplish the task. “I figured out that I had to come up with a long-acting antibiotic,” Kelso explains. “And it turns out there are classes of antibiotics used in chemotherapy, so then I wanted to find one that also had the serendipitous and unusual finding that it could stop, or even cure, cancer.”

This seemingly magical—but not entirely impossible—antibiotic drives the thriller side of Hyperion’s Fracture. Claire manages to find the drug Hyperion will need in the jungles of Panama, as does a rogue pharmaceutical company that will stop at nothing to keep it for themselves. Luckily for Claire, both Kelso and his leading man have many years of experience with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group—or SEAL Team 6 as it’s more commonly known.

After completing medical school, Kelso spent nine years working with the Navy, specifically with this elite group of Navy SEALs. “I never deployed with them. I never went on missions,” he clarifies. “But I was around these guys for years. I thought it was a good way to give Mark something interesting, something more than just a medical background.”

Kelso made sure, however, that his leading lady remained a far cry from any clichéd damsel in distress. “I wanted to write a heroine that was strong and feisty. She’s not going to back down in a fight for anything if she thinks she’s right,” he says of Claire. In crafting a young woman who would be convincing as a brilliant scientist and a clear leader, Kelso again looked to his own personal experience: “I modeled her after my daughter.” He explains that his daughter is not actually an expert in stem cell biology, but that he has been proud, watching her become a very accomplished businesswoman, and she was the perfect model for Claire, who is, after all, the real brains of the operation.

Kelso’s firsthand knowledge fills Hyperion’s Fracture with ample detail. The medical jargon and explanations that he delves into can be dense, but they make it plausible that printed bone matter, a cure for cancer, and ass-kicking Navy SEALs have all come together to try to save an injured racehorse. Because even in the most extraordinary moments, Claire and Mark still come across as believable medical professionals. “When I read medical thrillers, I know [if] the writer has never been in an operating room,” Kelso says. “I wanted to write authentic scenes with authentic dialogue. The way it really happens. That was one of my goals as a writer.”

Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.