Published by Tor Books on July 5 2016
In my “old” book collecting days, F. Paul Wilson was one of the authors whose books I bought and read, but it’s been years since I’ve even thought about him, until Tor asked me if I’d like to read his latest. He’s one of Stephen King’s contemporaries and published his first book in 1976, and I was curious to see what he was up to. Most authors don’t have that kind of staying power, but F. Paul Wilson, like King, has proven he’s a born storyteller, and I can attest to the fact that he hasn’t lost his edge. If anything, he’s better than I remember. Panacea was a wild adventure ride across several continents, as our characters search for the elusive “panacea” that may or may not be real, which can cure any disease. Wilson combines all the elements I love in just under 400 pages—adventure, action, humor, danger, mystery, fantastic characters and perfect pacing. If there was ever a “summer read,” then Panacea is it. I love my thoughtful literary science fiction and complex fantasy, but honestly, nothing beats a down-and-dirty adventure story.
Laura Fanning is a medical examiner who is routinely called to murder sites to investigate bodies, but she’s never seen anything quite like this. Within days of each other, two victims turn up with mysterious similarities: they both have an odd tattoo on their backs, and both bodies were set on fire. Found amidst the aftermath of the fires were planters full of soil, which suggests that the victims had been growing something in their apartments.
Meanwhile, a secret group that call themselves the Brotherhood are trying to track down the panacea, said to be a miracle cure. Their goal isn’t to use it, however, but to destroy everyone associated with it. When Laura is approached by a dying billionaire named Stahlman and offered a huge sum of money to find him a life-saving dose of the panacea, her first impulse is to say no—although such a big payday would set her ill daughter Marissa up for life. But Laura is a woman of science and knows there is no such thing as a panacea. However, her interest is piqued and she heads off to Mexico with Stahlman’s bodyguard Rick Hayden to see what she can find.
But Laura and Rick have plenty of surprises in store for them, as the Brotherhood will do anything to stop them from finding the panacea. Caught up in a battle between religion and science, and maybe something otherworldly, Laura becomes even more determined to find the elusive cure. But with an army of fanatics after her, will she and Rick survive their adventure?
Panacea was such a fun read from the get-go, and when I said it had perfect pacing, I wasn’t kidding. There was never a dull moment, and yet Wilson included plenty of quieter scenes where the characters use dialog to explain the ancient history of the panacea and solve the clues that keep popping up on their journey. You have to give the author credit for his forty plus years of writing experience. Wilson is the epitome of a “seasoned writer,” and after reading so many debuts recently, it was pure joy to sit back and watch a master at work.
Even though the characters are chasing something that supposedly doesn’t exist, Wilson adds plenty of facts to support his idea that there could be such a potion, and he even suggests that its origins might be from another planet (although most of the story feels grounded right here on Earth). A big part of what I loved about this story was the detailed history and evolution of the panacea from ancient times to the present day, a secret that has been handed down for generations by “panaceans” who carefully cultivate the plant that the drug comes from. I also loved the fact that he made one of the main characters a doctor, which sets up a delightful quandary for Laura who, as a scientist, knows that such a thing cannot exist, and yet she’s seen some inexplicable things that point to a medical mystery that even she can’t explain.
So let’s talk about the characters. I absolutely loved Laura and Rick, both as individuals and as a team. And let me be upfront and tell you that there isn’t a romance between them. Laura can’t stand Rick when she first meets him—she knows instinctively that he’s hiding something—but the more time they spend together, the more he surprises her. There is the possibility of romance, but in this book, at least, it never surfaces.
Rick is introduced as a muscle-bound body-guard with little or no social skills. When he and Laura are thrown together, neither one is very happy about it. And while Rick is great in an emergency—not only does he claim to have been a Navy SEAL, but he carries around a package of zip ties wherever he goes and tells Laura that there are “a thousand and one uses” for them—his tendency to kill those who get in his way scares Laura to death. But it isn’t long before she realizes there is a lot more to him than meets the eye. Rick is also the comic relief in the story, and I loved his funny banter with Laura. Each time he pulled out a zip tie to fix (or kill!) something, I laughed out loud.
A slimy member of the Brotherhood named Nelson was the perfect “bad guy,” a religious fanatic who sees the panacea as a threat to the world. Nelson’s beliefs are also tested, after he discovers he has terminal cancer, and he wonders if his devotion to the Brotherhood is strong enough for him to resist taking the panacea (if indeed he ever got the chance).
And here is my only complaint about the story. There are just too many sick and dying characters who are desperate to get their hands on the cure-all. Each time a new one was introduced with some awful disease, I admit I started to roll my eyes!
But that’s just a small personal complaint. F. Paul Wilson has written a story that not only entertains but gives the reader plenty to think about. I’ve always said that I love reading books where I learn something, and I learned plenty by the time I finished Panacea. The intricate plot will keep readers on their toes, trying to untangle all the strange coincidences the characters find themselves involved in, and the search for the panacea—the ultimate goal of the story—will keep them reading to the very surprising and satisfying end. I’ve heard talk that this might be the start to a series, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ll eagerly follow Laura and Rick on their next adventure.