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November 10, 2021

Phase Six by Jim Shepard: Book Review #Pandemic

by Alison DeLuca

I'm not sure why I'm drawn to books about pandemics.

Phase Six, starts with this idea: What if we learnt nothing at all from COVID-19? It's all too easy to imagine, and Jim Shepard's novel follows that concept. 

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cover of Phase Six

The characters make the book come alive. Phase Six begins with Aleq and Malik, two best friends who live and fish in a native community near Greenland. They're typical kids, ready to sneak out and paddle past the floating glaciers or torture their parents (in Aleq's case, his grandparents.)

When the boys trespass at a mine exposed by climate change, that transgression sets in motion something that will change their world as well as ours.

The disease the boys innocently set loose brings two more characters, Jeannine and Danice, to investigate its origin. These scientists working for the CDC are incredibly human, two women who love each other and enjoy working together. And when they encounter Aleq and his crushing guilt, Jeannine has to use every tactic she can think of to find out more about the disease that threatens her family and friends.

I loved Phase Six because the characters were so real. Aleq, Jeannine, and Danice all make mistakes as they blunder through their terrifying landscape. Faced with disaster, the two scientists and the boy aren't superhumans - just human. 

Their relationships are complex and incredibly real. The growing friendship between Danice and Jeannine is well-written, replete with their respect for each other's science and pure liking between women - all too rare in literature. 

Jeannine's boyfriend, Branislav, has a son she finds annoying because the kid spills houseplants. In the end, it's Branislav who is able to get through to Aleq. 

One word about writing children: it's a huge challenge that few writers get right. Aleq is spot on, a real boy who loves to get into trouble. His friendship with Malik is replete with fun and getting into trouble. Aleq's memory of grandmother is funny, sad, and perfect for their comfortable relationship: 

"Sometimes she'd set him on the counter and say, 'Aren't you ugly? Don't I have the ugliest little boy in the whole settlement?' and he'd answer, 'You're the one who's ugly. It must be hard for people to share food with you.'"

Shepard's writing is spare and beautiful. Chapters have poetic titles like 'His Father's Expression' and 'Be Good or the Qivitoq Will Get You' as well as the ominous 'Nobody Feels Very Good Today.' The author evokes Aleq's community and the CDC scientists with clear-eyed respect. 

Once I started reading the book, I couldn't put it down. The technical parts were well-researched, and I was fascinated by the insider's look into Epidemic Intelligence. I've seen some (SPOILER) complaints about the ending, but I thought it fit perfectly with the theme of the novel.

Overall, Phase Six reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Both novels presented horrifying events in a laconic, realistic style. Both writers use spare prose that seems simple but is actually a master class in description, characterization, and plot development.

If you're looking for more gripping pandemic fiction, this book is an excellent choice.

Buy Phase Six at Amazon

Alison DeLuca is the author of several steampunk and urban fantasy books.  She was born in Arizona and has also lived in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain.

Currently, she wrestles words and laundry in New Jersey. You can find her at 

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