Friday, October 16, 2020

Book Review: The Kafir: The Unbeliever by Abigail Rook

 A Web of Secrecy and Bad (Political) Assumptions Keep the Thrill Going

 If you’re looking to get away from talk of viruses (e.g., the coronavirus) for a while, The Kafir will let you escape into a world of international, political intrigue and espionage (although the story revolves around the threat of an epidemic). And if you haven’t had enough about these infective agents, the novel still works. Though I have no background, the medical information in the book feels authoritative, which is further supported by the fact that the author is a doctor. I greatly enjoyed the interplay of life-and-death drama with medical information about viruses, manmade vs. natural. It’s a great combination to keep the pages turning.

Our heroine, Carolin Falkenberg, is a German doctor investigating a virus outbreak in Zimbabwe on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO). Not all is what it seems and eventually, she forms something of an alliance with Nathan Cole, a National Security Agency (NSA) agent. Together, they try to disentangle a web of misinformation and bad assumptions involving secret biological warfare programs, religious groups, and military organizations. The author kept me guessing about the true culprit long into the tale, although at least part of the mystery is maintained by the number of possibilities; there are quite a few characters to keep straight. And along the way, the American military system and intelligence services receive some criticism, as they too frequently opted for political answers over evidence.

There are a few, minor issues that probably came from the translation from German. For example, when a man was described as boarding a plane in Washington DC, he is actually getting off the plane. These confusions, however, are limited and detract little from the tale. More concerning to me was a somewhat inconsistent characterization of our protagonist. At the start of the book, she seems quite uneasy with people, and yet later, she’s described as extremely empathetic, seeing through Coles’ fake identity almost immediately. Perhaps under the circumstances in the tale, her transition is supposed to represent a personality change, but it seemed too abrupt and too extreme. And finally, the event that allowed the epidemic to occur is a bit too convenient. In the context of authoritative medical information on viruses, how the virus was obtained felt contrived.

Overall, if you look beyond the epidemic’s initiating event, the medical information on the virus, the individuals involved in investigating and spreading it, and their motivations make for some captivating reading.

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