Book review: The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

(image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

ARC provided by Angry Robot Books; The Phlebotomist is due for release on 8 September in UK and 8 December in Australia.

One of the most rewarding aspects of reading any book, regardless of genre or author, is when the narrative doesn’t go anywhere near where you expect it to go.

You could argue that should be true of any book since back-of-cover blurbs, the good ones anyway, should tantalise with possibility rather than act as some sort of temptingly brief rundown of the entire plot, but then there are books which seem to promise one thing and deliver quite another in the best and most spectacular of all possible ways.

Such a repeatedly-and-gloriously-zigs-when-you-think-it-will-zag book is The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier, which totally subverts any and all expectations, delivering in the process an exhilarating thrilling read that pulsates with raw action, and rich affecting humanity.

Set in the near-future when humanity has once again come unnervingly close to wiping itself of the face of the earth, this time with a series of nuclear blasts which have rendered the United States, and presumably much of the rest of the world, a broken, poverty-laden and environmentally ruined shadow of its former verdant self, The Phlebotomist tells the story of Willa Wallace, a woman old enough to remember what came before but who has resigned herself to a wholly new and different world.

In this blighted, hollowed out shell of a world, humanity is stratified according to their blood types; the rarer your blood type, the more money you get per litre donated, so that the more you donate, the more money you get.

With robots having replaced people in most jobs, the only real source for income is giving your blood and lots of it, and while there are ostensibly limits on how much you can give and how often, the reality is that a blind eye is often turned to excessive donations meaning that many people literally drain themselves dry and die as a result.

“Willa quickly messaged a neighbour she trusted to get Isaiah safely home from school and headed back inside. She felt like pacing, but her stall kept her stationary. She teetered back and forth with anticipation. Nerves. nine hours to go until Scynthia Scallien found out she hasn’t been summoned to talk about an NDA. Willa wondered how long she’d have to discuss her idea if the woman stormed out, or worse, wrote her up. She banished the thought of termination from her mind. Certainly that wasn’t in the cards?” (P. 64)

It’s a cold and cruel existence but Willa is luckier than most, having secured employment by virtue of being a trained phlebotomist (someone trained in withdrawing blood for testing or donation), her role as a Reaper in the Draw (or the Harvest as people outside Patriot call it), as it is somewhat euphemistically called, making her a value member of society and a star employee for Patriot, a corporate entity which runs society in its own horribly capitalist image.

It’s hardly a cosy life – no one in The Phlebotomist can be said to be sitting pretty save for the Highbloods who live in palatial homes on luxurious estates and are, mysteriously, exempt from having to contribute to the Draw – but Willa knows she is luckier than most, able to afford, food, medical care and some measure of a normal upbringing for her grandson Isaish.

What passes for a good life in this blighted world, and Panatier does a brilliant job of effortless worldbuilding, is soon rent asunder however when Willa makes some discoveries which lead her to believe that the Draw may have a far darker reason for being than simply sending necessary blood supplies to the radiation-ailing survivors in the Grey Zones.

This is when this quietly powerful, compellingly-written gem of a dystopian novel lets loose, unleashing a story that overturns any and all expectations you might have built up in the course of the first part of the story.

Chris Panatier (image courtesy Angry Robot Books)

And lordy, if it doesn’t subvert with a gleeful intensity that will astound, delight and invigorate you.

What begins as a quiet testament to one woman’s survival in a harsh and unforgiving world in which she and her grandson have some modicum of comfort, however less than ideal it may be, soon becomes a thrilling examination of what it means to be human and what you may be called upon to do to uphold that sense of humanity in the face of some unthinkably evil challenges.

The sheer inventive, imaginative brilliance of The Phlebotomist is that it goes to some fairly wild and out there places while still managing to feel grounded, a credit to Panatier’s gifted ability for mixing action with thoughtfulness, pedal-to-the-metal, full speed head narrative twists-and-turns with really affecting humanity.

As the consequences of Willa’s unsettling discoveries play out, and she comes to know people like the Locksmith and Everard, who tends to a group of orphans who would otherwise have no hope of survival, Panatier’s wholly original and winningly-told novel spins and weaves a tale that will leave you gasping with delight and horrified by its implications.

Beyond all this, you will be thrilled at the way it continually subverts your expectations of a book that remains true to the power of its initial narrative thrust while overlaying all kinds of wild storyline lunges which never feel less than organically part of the original whole.

“At this point in her life, Willa assumed she’d been down every street in the blood districts, knew every neighborhood and the buildings within, but this place wasn’t ringing familiar. She processed her confusion and her lips formed the shape of a question to be asked, ‘Where—‘

‘Bad Blood,’ said Lindon, staring out.

That was it. Bad Blood. The place where people went and never left. A camp for the infected. The place where those with bloodborne illnesses came to live until they died.” (P. 219)

The Phlebotomist is a stunningly original read.

It delivers on the whole dystopianally bleak story of the world gone wrong and one person’s struggle to not just survive but doing something right in the face of a whole host of entrenched and soul-sucking wrongs, but goes impressively beyond that taking some very wild narrative directions that feel disturbingly real and entirely possible (despite some pleasingly out there ideas).

In a world full to the brim of tales both apocalyptic and dystopian, in which humanity has made a complete near-fatal hash of things and redemption feels despairingly out of reach, Panatier accomplishingly offers a story in which things might actually get better but not without a whole lot of loss and sacrifice and searing existential angst and not without the very blackness and conversely lightness of the human soul being laid bare.

For all the manic pace and wild premise that underpins The Phlebotomist, a hard science fiction book with heart, which adorns each of its chapters with definitions of blood conditions and medical techniques, it is, at its core, a tale of tenacious humanity, the kind that persists even in the face of most impossible and terrible of things.

Willa, like all of us, could just give up in the face of her fateful discovery but she doesn’t, setting in train a story that will grip you from the start, and again when things really get rolling with a gleeful but impacting intensity, and will leave you with a fresh appreciation for our innate humanity which may not be perfect and may be flawed to the nth degree but which is a damn sight better than any other alternative, especially the sort that underpin dystopian societies of the kind The Phlebotomist so brilliantly evokes.

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