Rating: 4 out of 5
F. Paul Wilson’s Panacea: A Novel (The ICE Sequence Volume 1) runs on an intriguing premise: what if there’s a “potion” of sorts that can cure… anything? It can bring the recipient back to a state of full health overnight. How would you go about tracking down the few people who know about it, and what would happen if society found out?
Dr. Laura Fanning, a deputy medical examiner, is half-Mayan. She used to engage in bio-prospecting (wandering through areas looking for new, potentially valuable, plant species that might yield medicines), and has done a fair amount of traveling in the area her ancestors came from. One day, a strange corpse crosses her table. The man is in utterly perfect health, and while his body was found badly burned, it’s clear the fire didn’t kill him. There’s also an unusual tattoo on his back, and he was in perfect health–no cause of death can be found. This happens again, and then Laura examines the corpse of a boy she knows, who absolutely had arthritis so bad that he used a wheelchair–and there’s no sign of it in his body. A Mr. Stahlman offers to pay her a ridiculous amount of money (certainly enough to set her sick daughter up for life) to find the panacea for him that he insists exists. He’s extremely sick, and just wants to live. He’s hired Rick Hayward to accompany and protect her–a dangerous, ex-Navy SEAL (or is he?) who has some strange ideas about the universe. Just to make things dicier, there’s a religious order called the 536 Brotherhood that’s after the people making the panacea, and they aren’t too thrilled to see Laura and Rick stick their noses into things. In a bizarre coincidence, Brother Nelson Fife, who’s heading this operation (and is also a CIA agent), has an uncle who was partially paralyzed when Laura ran into him when she was just 17. Thus, Nelson would be very happy to see Laura dead.
Yeah, as you can see, it’s a bit complicated. Plenty of twists and turns. If you, unlike Rick, do not believe in ICE (Intrusive Cosmic Entities), or at least in Nelson Fife’s God, then the coincidences in the entire trilogy will be waaaay over the top. If you can’t suspend disbelief on that end, it might be best to skip it. I mean, Laura just happens to be the person who paralyzed Nelson’s father when she was 17. She’s so perfect for this mission it’s almost spooky (her bio-prospecting background and ability to speak the necessary language), especially considering she just stumbled across it in her morgue. Rick just happens to have history with Nelson. Either you go all-in or it just won’t work.
Naturally both secret organizations (the “panaceans” and the Brotherhood) tattoo their members so the protagonists can easily classify them. (I thought this was a pretty well-established “don’t have your (villain) do this because it totally undermines their secrecy” idea by now?)
The one thing that’s particularly weird to me is the depiction of deputy medical examiner Laura Fanning (over the course of all three books). She’s half-Mayan but, naturally, has blue eyes with her brown skin (funny how that particular combination of features shows up so often in books. Typically it’s used to imply (or even outright state) that this person is somehow better or more special than others of her ethnicity or race because she has a distinctly Caucasian feature). She’s also depicted in a very dated fashion. She’s “perfect,” she’s “plucky,” she’s put on a pedestal by Rick, she’s sanctimonious at times yet is depicted as mostly not being able to do anything wrong (except for that one accident when she was 17), and she’s naive in certain areas. What’s particularly weird about this is that otherwise, she really is a strong female character. But this particular stereotype of the “perfect” woman who also acts as the moral compass for others is old and is usually used in a sexist manner–all real women, when held up to this example, fall short. Hold on through it if you can, because she really is a strong character otherwise, and there are other good female characters in the trilogy.
Rick is my favorite character in the whole trilogy. He’s done some genuinely dark things and has a lot of blood on his hands. He also has a surprisingly deadpan sense of humor, and a lot of very bizarre ideas about the world once Laura gets him talking. He is not at all the tall, dark and reticent character that one would expect, and I love that!
There’s a lot of great action, globe-spanning travel, good pacing, and intriguing plots. Pretty much all of my concerns are about how Laura is presented and all the coincidences. If those wouldn’t bother you, you’ll probably find this book to be quite fantastic. Even if they would bother you, it’s still quite good.
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