Book Review: Child Zero by Chris Holm

Perfect for fans of Michael Crichton, Child Zero by molecular biologist turned Anthony Award-winning author Chris Holm is a fact-based thriller about our species’ next great existential threat.

Chris Holm is the author of six critically acclaimed novels and numerous works of short fiction. His books include the genre-bending Collector trilogy (Dead Harvest, The Wrong Goodbye, and The Big Reap) and, more recently, two thrillers featuring hitman Michael Hendricks, The Killing Kind and Red Right Hand; the former won the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Novel. Also a molecular biologist, Holm returns with this May’s standalone novel, Child Zero, which is thoroughly steeped in his scientific background.

Imagine a (near) future in which disease and infection run rampant, bodies entirely immune to the introduction of antibiotics (resulting from the release of a virus on what is known as the 8/17 attack). So is the world that Detective Jacob Gibson—widower father to four-year-old daughter, Zoe—now inhabits, where resistance is deadly in more ways than one. Called by his partner to the scene of a mass murder in a shantytown located in Central Park, he is baffled to find that the victims all appear to have been in perfect health prior to death. Their bodies, slashed, stacked, and burned, bear evidence of an efficiently organized attack carried out under cover of darkness (both literally and figuratively, as CCTV failed). Further, a young boy has gone missing from the encampment. What does his disappearance have to do with the massacre?

El Salvador-born refugee Mateo (“Mat”) Rivas is on the run. Just why a twelve-year-old immigrant of mixed race is the object of a merciless manhunt remains unknown, though it would appear he possesses inexplicable healing powers. Circumstances conspire to bring Mat and Jacob (and others) together in a battle against enemies unknown, their initial trepidation eventually giving way to trust. Meanwhile, Zoe is experiencing fever, fatigue, and other symptoms of illness, which Jacob refuses to report to authorities—a blatant violation of the Department of Biological Security’s mandate on such matters. The DBS itself operates with the kind of autonomy that blurs the lines between prudent and predatory (think: the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which many allege began Big Brother surveillance). Consequently, lives are on the line—and survival is as murky a prospect as maladies without medicine.

“One of the most horrifying books you’re likely to encounter in the age of COVID-19.”

The story follows multiple characters, which allows Holms to juxtapose the varied personal, professional, and political stakes at play for his colorful ensemble (while also illuminating the particular vulnerability of marginalized communities facing a public health crisis). Fittingly, action and emotion coalesce, each heightening the other’s potency. The book’s pacing, then, is near relentless while the Holm’s handling of scientific minutiae remains skillfully subtle; it’s always there—almost insidiously so—but it never quite overwhelms the narrative. The result is a socially conscious thriller that speaks to one’s brawn and brains, written by an author who has dared to step outside his comfort zone to outstanding, and painfully resonant, effect.

Chris Holm’s Child Zero is one of the most horrifying books you’re likely to encounter in the age of COVID-19 (or perhaps ever, really)—not simply because its premise exists within the realm of possibility but, arguably, probability. It will keep you up at night (and it should), first turning the pages with rapt fervor and then (re)considering those pages with careful attention. Such contemplation may very well be our best defense against the things that threaten us, both real and imagined. Feel free to remind yourself: This is a work of fiction—at least for now.

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