The First Bird – Greig Beck, 2013.
When a greedy social anthropologist unwittingly carries home a deadly infectious mite from the unexplored reaches of South America’s Gran Chaco Boreal, he launches a world-ending pandemic.
So begins an odd combination of an H. Rider Haggard-style lost world adventure, with a full-on George A. Romero movie. It takes a massive suspension of disbelief to join in this journey, but if you can overlook the two wildly disparate stories, The First Bird is an entertaining read. A little formulaic. A little heavy-handed. But redeemed by some creative ideas.
Hotshot professor and paleolinguist Matt Kearns – a character who appeared in several of Beck’s Alex Hunter novels – and his student-cum-girlfriend Megan have their working vacation cut short by the CDC. Dr. Carla Nero is one of the sole members of the organization who recognizes the dire nature of the skin-sloughing epidemic. With hopes of finding a cure, she strong-arms Matt and Megan into joining a private expedition to the ground-zero source of the parasitic pathogen.
Their ragtag team also includes a millionaire movie maker scoping material for his next big hit, his bodyguard and jungle pro Kurt, his personal physician, a paleobiologist, an entomologist, another linguist and their local Brazilian guide. Many of these folks are clearly on board as redshirts.
The expedition discovers a deadly primal landscape filled with grotesquely evolved creatures. Romantic jealousy blossoms. Action abounds. The body count rises. And then the story abruptly switches genres.
What’s left of the team arrives back in the states to find that the U.S. has spectacularly (in a bad way) deteriorated into an apocalyptic battleground. They must fight their way – with a little military assistance – to the besieged CDC and create and disseminate a cure.
The First Bird sacrifices depth for breadth of story, and one wishes for more detailed characterization as well as greater dimension from both plotlines. That said, the book is a fast paced, interesting read: the different human manifestations of the infestation in the second half of the book are neatly imagined, and the story (ies) race along. Action junkies – and I – will most likely hunt down the second title in the Matt Kearns series, Book of the Dead.