Have you ever read a book that you’re interested in, and you have the feeling that, any page now, it’s going to get really good? I felt that way through most of The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson. I was at one of the public libraries trying to find a copy of Magic Study (see previous post), when I came across The Physician’s Tale. When I got home, I realized that I’d picked up book three of a series. Fortunately, I happened to have the first two books in my picked-it-up-a-while-ago-haven’t-actually-read-it pile.
The Plague Tale follows the lives of two fictional doctors who are dealing with outbreaks of bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. One of the doctors is a Jew in disguise who has to protect the English royal family from the plague. The second doctor is a modern surgeon who lives in a not-to-distant future where most bacterial diseases have become completely drug resistant.
To me, this sounds like a really good, terrifying read. Unfortunately, the plot that I was imagining never happened. The catastrophes that I was expecting to happen in the modern plot thread never happened. The medieval plot, barring a few mystical weirdnesses, did live up to its promise. I have hopes for the sequels. After reading the book jacket for The Physician’s Tale, I think that something big might finally happen in that book.
The modern plot thread brings up a funny plot problem for me. This is going to require a little bit of set up, so bear with me. Othello is one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare, but every time I read or see the play, I feel like yelling at the characters “Don’t listen to Iago!” A lot of the tragedy of the play could have been prevented if the characters had trusted each other and figured out that Iago was a twisted little stick who spoke nothing but lies.
By contrast, the main characters of The Plague Tales manage to thwart the bad guy and save the world well before the plague outbreak gets out of control. It’s not that I want to see millions of fictional characters die horrible from a mutated version of the plague, but this book could have been absolutely enthralling if that had happened. I just felt let down after all the build up.
I’ve moved on to the second book, Burning Road. I’m hoping that the modern surgeon plot thread will mature and get better.