Friday, August 24, 2012


Released just this month, Dustin Thomason's 12.21 is a novel guessed it...the end of the current Long Count of the Mayan calendar.  We're in Los Angeles, and it's two weeks before the date that's been designated to be the end of civilization as we know it; even with all the hype the "2012ers" are making about the alleged prophecy, things are pretty much business as usual.  Until Gabriel Stanton, a prion expert for the CDC, gets a call from a resident at a hospital in East L.A.:  she's got a patient whose symptoms she can't pin down as anything known, but which are remarkably similar to the extremely rare prion disease, Fatal Familial Insomnia.  It doesn't take long to determine that this was serious, and needed to be contained.

The only problem, however, is that the patient doesn't speak any English.  Chel Manu, a linguistic researcher at the Getty Museum, is asked to act as translator, and as soon as she's told what he is saying, she agrees immediately.  A Guatemalan American, her academic specialty is in Mayan epigraphy, and she has recently acquired (under the table) a complete codex from the classical period.  A priceless artifact academically and an equally priceless piece of her people's history, and the hospital's new patient with the mystery illness seems to be connected to its discovery - the one word he keeps repeating is the Mayan word for "codex."

Before they know it, they're racing the clock to follow clues in the codex to the origin of the disease; without the origin, a successful treatment can't be made, and the infection is rapidly becoming an epidemic of epic proportions.  Could this be the collapse of civilization the calendar is thought to predict?

I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, but would gladly have paid for a copy, as I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I like apocalyptic stories to begin with, but when you add in things like linguistics, archaeology, and mythology?  I was sucked in immediately.  The further along I got in the book, the closer it gets to 12.21, the harder it was for me to put this down.  The characters aren't too terribly complex, but they're not necessarily one-dimensional, either.  I liked that while there was an element of romance, it was very minor in the plot, so the story never veered off into something mushy and irrelevant.  

It was obvious to me, while reading 12.21 that Thomason really did his homework to get all the technical details right.  I knew what mad cow disease was before reading this book, and I'd heard of FFI, but now I feel like I have a pretty passable basic knowledge of prions, which are pretty fascinating.  And while he of course had to invent parts of the ancient Mayan bits, what he writes feels incredible but possible in the context of the story he's created, and he takes it all to a very interesting place.

If you are interested in reading about the decline of society, or ancient Mayan civilization, or the whole 2012 thing, I'd recommend this book.  It's probably my favorite of all the 2012-themed stories that I've read or watched so far, and I can see this easily becoming the next big "airplane read," on shelves next to novels by the likes of Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, and James Patterson.  I'm hoping maybe it'll be optioned for a screenplay sometime in the near future, too.



Dial Press

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Better World Books


Click to see my progress on the challenges to which this book applies!


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