Lisa Morris certainly isn’t the first eight-year-old child to fib about her health so her parents won’t cancel a much-anticipated trip to a giant theme park. She is, however, the first child whose fib led to approximately 10 million deaths and a dramatic shift in the way the human immune system works.
Young Lisa is Patient Zero for Morris’s disease, an illness that masquerades as measles but quickly morphs into something much worse. The disease soon becomes the sole obsession of Dr. Isabelle Gauley, virologist, pediatrician, and Lisa’s aunt. But it’s not eradication Gauley is working for; instead, she seeks to develop a way to isolate and protect those who’ve somehow escaped exposure.
Kingdom of Needle and Bone sees author Seanan McGuire (by way of her pseudonym, Mira Grant) use the premise of an apocalyptic thriller to wade into the prickly, real-world vaccination debate. At its heart, the novella is an extended conversation about the idea that vaccination is both a personal choice and a societal responsibility. It’s a well-written, engaging conversation (as one would expect from McGuire, an accomplished horror and fantasy author), but ultimately, the thrill in this thriller gets lost in the shuffle.
As the story progresses, McGuire shifts our attention away from a world ravaged by disease, and focuses almost entirely on the small group assembled by Dr. Gauley to build and staff the island oasis she envisions as humanity’s savior. This approach has potential, but characterization is minimized in favor of more discussion about herd immunity and security measures. The unfortunate result is that a story-ending twist lands with a bit of a thud, bringing the entire novella to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.
Kingdom of Needle and Bone is a well-written, thought-provoking piece of work in which McGuire poses a frighteningly plausible scenario, but the dry approach makes it a tougher slog than its lean 125 pages would suggest.