Don't bother reaching for a Kleenex. It's not just a cold. It's not even the flu.
It's the Doom.
If you needed any further proof that the world was ending, here comes Nora Roberts with "Year One," a work of speculative fiction about a deadly pandemic. Anyone monitoring the mutating strains of pop fiction should have seen this new hybrid emerging from the Queen of Romance. Yes, the ground is already littered with the corpses of earlier apocalyptic novels, but Roberts will have no trouble clearing a spot to land. "Year One" begins with the deaths of 5 billion people, which is almost as many books as Roberts has sold.
What better way to celebrate the centennial of the Spanish flu? Alarming features in recent issues of Smithsonian and Foreign Affairs remind us that the 1918 pandemic wiped out far more people than World War I, but we've grown dangerously cavalier. The World Health Organization is closely monitoring a new strain of H7N9 in China, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is supporting an international effort in 50 countries to respond to what it calls "novel" threats.
But the threats in Roberts's novel are impossible to inoculate yourself against. The trouble starts, as it so often does, at a holiday family gathering. The MacLeods are getting ready for a New Year's Eve party on their vacation farm in Scotland when Ross MacLeod — later known as "Patient Zero" — shoots a pheasant. As luck would have it, the dead bird lands in the center of a cursed circle of stones, and before you know it, Granny groans, "Now the end and the grief, the strife and the fear — the beginning and the light."
That would totally harsh my New Year's Eve vibe, but apparently Granny is always nattering on like the Grim Reaper, so drink up, everybody!
Alas, when the MacLeods fly back home to the United States, they spread a magical flu virus to everyone else on the plane, which is why I always carry a little bottle of Purell. But no matter: Within days, hundreds of millions are dying. Governments collapse.
Roberts draws this medical disaster in quick strokes, following the lives of her many central characters while sketching the calamity circling the globe. At the center of her large cast is Lana, a New York sous chef. She recently started dating Max, a famous writer, "hard and handsome with a scruffy look." He's been training Lana in magick, and the only thing hotter than their sex life is their witchcraft: They can light candles with their breath, so I'm glad they found each other.
As the flu epidemic takes down civilization, fantastical creatures begin to appear. Mixed among the surviving remnant of humanity are faeries, elves, sirens and sorcerers — like the whole catalogue of a New Age gift store come to life. "The Doom spread its poison fast," Roberts writes, "while magicks, both the dark and the light, rose up to fill the void death created."
Everyone's on the move, fleeing the ruined cities. But there's no easy way to tell who's a regular human being and who's one of the Uncanny (until they unfold their wings, which is a dead giveaway). What's worse, there's no way to distinguish the good guys from the evil freaks (until they eviscerate you, which is too late).
After publishing more than 200 novels, Roberts knows exactly how to spellbind an audience. And "Year One" barrels along for a couple hundred pages with heartbreaking losses, hair-raising escapes and gruesome attacks. Bad faeries want to finish off all the humans, racist humans want to pluck all the faeries, and what's left of the military wants to capture survivors for medical experiments. But no matter how high the bodies pile up, there's always time for cute flirting between good-looking characters because "every day, in the midst of tragedy and despair, people go on."
As does this story.
Which eventually becomes a problem. Once the cast of likable human and Uncanny survivors starts rebuilding society, the plot shifts down from the thrill of apocalyptic disaster to the tedium of inventory control: lots and lots of whiny discussions about conserving electricity, divvying up the kitchen duties and figuring out who stole the Doritos. For aspiring communists, this is a good reminder that the only thing worse than the gulags is the meetings.
Unfortunately, having concocted a worldwide calamity, Roberts seems unwilling to imagine just how radically civilization would react to such historic decimation — and the arrival of magical creatures. In my house, I've suffered more psychological trauma from running out of Nutella. As one survivor admits a little too truthfully, "It doesn't seem real, any of it." Not that we see very much magick in these pages anyhow. Rather than create a fully fleshed fantastical new world, Roberts seems content to refer us to popular touchstones such as "The Blair Witch Project," "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter."
"Year One" is the first volume in a planned trilogy, which should have given Roberts plenty of room to explore what caused this epidemic, who these fantastical creatures are, and how economic, political, theological and sociological structures are mutating. But you'll have to buy the second volume — or maybe even the third — to get any answers.
For now, all we know is that 80 percent of the people on Earth have died. The survivors are living like "Little House 'n' the Faery." And some nasty sorcerers are out to kill Lana and her unborn child, who is clad in the vague Christ imagery you might hear in a straight-to-DVD sci-fi movie or some super-liberal nondenominational church.
So grab a warm cup of Theraflu, snuggle up with a copy of "Year One" and pray you're one of the lucky survivors.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of Totally Hip Video Book Review.
By Nora Roberts
St. Martin's. 432 pp. $27.99