Year One - Nora Roberts
Year One - Nora Roberts **
One of the pitfalls of writing apocalyptic fiction is the question of scale. How do you convey the immense consequences of a worldwide disaster/pandemic, but also keep it relatable on an individual human level? Most books of this kind find the need to focus on a small group or community as a microcosm of the wider world, and there's justification for this in the simple fact that the focus is always likely to be on immediate local concerns, and since worldwide communications will be one of the first things to go, who knows what is going on in the wider world anyway?
Nora Roberts - not an author you would expect to operate with this genre - seems to have a clear concept and structure in mind in Year One, the first book of her apocalyptic fiction series, Chronicles of the One. The book aims big at the opening, with a deadly pandemic that has wiped out two billion people by the time you get to page 45. There is then a focus on a smaller group of people, or at least several small teams of survivors who gradually come together to form a new community. But there are significant differences in how Roberts approaches the creation of a new world than the more common gloomy prognosis that other writers take on this subject.
The devastation might be vast and the speed with which it occurs might be scarily rapid, but the details on what causes the pandemic that wipes out a third of the world's population is, for the moment anyway, quite scant. It originates in Dumfries, of all places, from a drop of blood spilled on a stone circle by the Ross brothers who have been hunting in the Scottish countryside. The virulent infection soon spreads to everyone they come into contact with on the flight home. Within days the Doom virus, as it becomes known, has gone worldwide, causing quick and violent death to all who come into contact with it. Well, not all; a small proportion of the community are either immune to the infection, or they find that they have new enhanced abilities...
Apparently then Year One doesn't go down the naturalistic route, but one rather that is closer to the dark fantasy of Susan Ee's Angelfall or Joe Hill's The Fireman, and in fact, Nora Roberts almost seems to be striving for a balance somewhere between their visions of Light and Dark in apocalyptic times. That's not to say that the author fails to take into consideration the kind of deep social unrest that is likely to result, and in Year One there are marauding gangs of Raiders and some even darker forces at large preying on survivors for supplies and acting just out of malice, freed by the breakdown of law and order. Roberts clearly doesn't see this as being the new way of the world and very quickly sets about establishing a more optimistic one.
"A crochet circle. A cheese making faerie, a doctor, a home with a good kitchen, and a pretty backyard. It's like a dream".
This is how one of the characters describes their perception of the community of New Hope that is established in Virginia. It's not without serious threats from the harm that the Doom virus has caused, but the foundation of the new society that springs up has a little help from the Uncanny. A surprisingly large percentage of the surviving population find that they have with enhanced abilities that relate them to designations of faeries, elves and white witches. The Craft, it seems, has always been there, but the power seems to have exploded to counterbalance the dark evil that has been unleashed (somehow) by the Doom.
Year One then heads more in the direction of dark fantasy than apocalyptic fiction - although even that is quite a shift in genre for Nora Roberts. It's still not entirely a convincing effort. Characters tend to fit fairly obviously into Good/White versus Bad/Black divisions, with perhaps a third category that you can call Harmless/Grey. It's not too difficult to tell them apart. Which is fair enough, since in such a world, those contrasts are likely to be even more marked - but there is still very much a predictability to behaviours with stock characters and personalities broadly defined. And, as should also be evident, a lot of dark fantasy tropes. By the time you get to the news that one of the women is pregnant with a child of the light they are calling The One, you might find this not nearly realistically dark or threatening enough, and all too predictable.
Year One (Chronicles of the One) by Nora Roberts is published by Piatkus on 5th December 2017