Or: Rae reviews romance with lots of boils
Last night I read Laura Thalassa’s Pestilence. I went into this without reading anything about the book other than the fact that it was about someone who falls in love with one of the Four Horsemen of the Christian apocalypse. I thought to myself, This is a book about a preternaturally powerful embodiment of disease laying waste to the Earth and striving to end all life as we know it. If that’s not powerful eldritch monsterfucker fuel, I don’t know what is.
I was disappointed. Deeply disappointed.
The spoiler-free review amounts to this: 3/5 stars. If you would like a tropey romance novel that’s a little bit more action-packed than standard while still playing it “safe” narratively, then go forth into the wilds of this book and enjoy. It requires the standard amount of suspension of disbelief. The highlights for me were: clever name puns, the fact that Thalassa doesn’t shrink from writing gore, and Trixie Skillz the horse. This is definitely not going to be for people who are… hardcore in their Christian leanings. This is not a book I would recommend to people traumatized by gun violence or intimate partner violence.
And now I get to stop caring about spoilers.
This book had no erotic horror content which was patently disappointing. It did, however, feature a horribly popular romance novel trope:
(aka Stockholm Syndrome aka This is Not Romantic)
The novel opens on a world that’s been ravaged by Messianic Fever for five years, more or less. The apocalypse has begun per the Christian Book of Revelations and the horseman, Pestilence, rides across the globe leaving horrific plague in his wake.
Up in Canada, a firefighter named Sara Burns (puns!) refuses to evacuate her home when Pestilence draws near; rather she draws lots with some of her crew to see who has to stay behind and attempt to kill the horseman. Sara loses. Sara shoots Pestilence in the face, sets him on fire, and goes about her business of feeling horribly guilty for doing a very necessary thing. Of course, you can’t kill the immortal/divinely ordained, so Pestilence hunts her down while he’s still all raw meaty and regenerating and gross to take her prisoner. This was, genuinely-speaking and without sarcasm, an awesome start to the story.
But when I say prisoner, y’all, I’m telling you that Pestilence may disdain humanity for their cruelty but he has learned a thing or three about how to be cruel to others. When she asks him why he doesn’t kill her or let her die, he tells her, “Suffering is for the living.”
Pestilence is described as being an implacable and neutral force of nature. Pestilence is, instead, proven to be a vengeful, sadistic manchild. Despite supposedly being divinely moved to show Sara mercy he is anything but. He deprives Sara of sleep, refuses to use her name when they argue (calling her “human” instead), ties her hands to his saddle and drags her behind his horse across asphalt on multiple occasions, allows her to nearly die of hypothermia, does not allow her the basic human right of privacy, and forgets to feed her.
Did you know that, approximately, for every 10 miles above 20mph, being dragged along asphalt, you lose 1mm of flesh every 10 feet dragged? And that human skin is at its very most 4mm thick? And that horses gallop at about 30 mph?
Yeah. Just sit with that for a while. That is why motorcyclists have leather exoskeletons (or should have for safety’s sake).
Sara does a pretty good job of resenting and hating this at first… but then she sees Pestilence naked and has a moment of “oh no, he’s hot” when she sees his glowy torso tattoos.
The story continues downhill from here.
Thalassa makes it blatantly clear that Pestilence, in addition to being unkillable, is utterly bereft of empathy and compassion and is actually quite sadistic, stating that he more or less enjoys torturing Sara. That little tidbit is never addressed later on in the novel when he has his obligatory “I don’t actually like being a tool of genocide” confession. I guess Sara conveniently forgot about being tortured. Once again we are faced with the story of “a woman selflessly fixes a broken and terrible man no matter how horrible he is to her” does– this is lazy writing, plain and simple. It is Sara’s job (her divinely-ordained job in this case) to teach him to love and have empathy for other beings through… sex, probably.
We learn that Pestilence didn’t kill Sara but opted to kidnap her instead because, when he arrived at her encampment at the start of the story, he saw one of those glowy tattoos I mentioned outlined in sunlight and shadows on her tent. The one that happens to mean “mercy”. See the above abuses and tell me just how any of that counts as mercy, please.
And sex? Improves nothing. The narration of the sex scenes is a little on the funny side, though, because Sara seems as bored with them as I was. It’s prime dramatic reading material thanks to her total dispassion for the whole process. To be fair I’m not certain I’d be able to enjoy myself when my partner’s name of choice was “Pestilence”– I dare you to try to say that out loud and make it sound sexy.
Thalassa can’t seem to make up her mind whether a powerful spirit of disease that has been around since the dawn of time is an awkward virgin who’s never seen a boob before or whether he’s absolutely dynamite in the sack. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty certain most people aren’t that great at Doing the Do the first time or two they try it without at least some direction from their partner– Pestilence, however, seems to have developed mind-reading powers that only apply to sex.
Of course, afterward, he reacts to sex as most fuckbois do: he now believes he owns Sara, more or less, and that she must marry him. She can’t ever leave him or have sex with anyone else ever because they made love and had a connection.
Obviously, I am unimpressed with this nonsense. Maybe it’s my being nominally lesbian, maybe it’s my being nominally asexual, maybe it’s my being a person capable of empathy and rational thought — but I intensely dislike the way the romance genre conflates abuse of all shades with love and romance.
It was impossible for me to set aside my extreme discomfort with the abuse Sara had experienced at Pestilence’s hands which made it really, really hard for me to enjoy… pretty much anything about the rest of the novel. That said, there’s not much that’s exceptional about the rest of the novel anyway; it follows the typical story progression of the genre. As these two travel together they “fall in love” and encounter other humans who are mostly horrible with the exception of one set of old married folks who are remarkably hospitable and kind. The others mostly try to kill Sara or Pestilence or the both of them.
The novel ends after an obligatory blowout fight where Sara just… walks off into the wilderness to leave Pestilence alone. Pestilence, unbeknownst to her, has already stopped his part of the apocalypse at this point and done what he could to reverse the plague. Sara goes back home to Vancouver, resumes her life, and Pestilence shows up at her place asking her again to get hitched. For some reason, this works. They have remarkably normal children. Pestilence the Conqueror chooses the name “Victor” (yay puns?) for his mortal coil. The epilogue ends with a foreboding hint that the next horseman, War, is on his way.
I did appreciate, deeply, the way Thalassa does not shrink from writing gore. I wish she’d leaned into it more. The horror of the Christian apocalypse should never be downplayed because the Book of Revelations itself is meant to be a horrifying critique of Rome that inspires people, through fear, to change their ways. Which brings me to my next point:
Worldbuilding and Religion
Okay, so, I get that no one goes to a romance novel for Serious Fantasy Writing. Consider this superfluous to the actual review if you want. I just can’t help asking, whenever I read any story, “But how does that even work?” and I’m going to talk through that here.
Thalassa takes a few stabs at world-building. There are a few passing mentions of news reporting and fliers for evacuation– although only those that pertain to Sara specifically and one must wonder where, in an apocalypse, people are finding the resources to print colorful fliers– and our heroic duo encounter one single cult that decides to worship Pestilence. However, she just… stops there.
The cop-out used by Pestilence, when questioned about God and the existence of the divine, is that most religions (e.g. The Big Ones: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism) kind of get it right but also they’re wrong and the one god that exists is unknowable. I find this to be supremely lazy both philosophically and narratively. The one common thread in religions that I have been able to find in my studies is not the vague “morality” that Pestilence describes but, rather, hospitality. Thalassa alludes to hospitality as a theme a couple of times throughout the story, so she gets kudos for that but, again, this is where things stop. Those “good” and hospitable people are not spared despite the fact that, according to the lore of Christianity, some people must survive Pestilence because there are 3 more horsemen to follow.
Furthermore: there are myriad more religions and gods out there in the world and not all of them are transcendent like the Christian God. If there is one deity that exists and exerts will over the world, who’s to say that others don’t as well? Thalassa utterly neglects how pantheons of other religions might react. What about Shinto deities? What about neo-pagan pantheons? What about Hindu deities? Syncretic religions of South America and Africa? The Book of Revelations does not apply in Islam and Judaism and it certainly does not apply in Buddhism, so what do these religions make of the world ending? How are they affected (or not affected) by Pestilence since Pestilence makes it clear that he is influenced by the collective belief and ideas of the people of earth?
Expanding upon these ideas and exploring these questions would not excuse Pestilence being an abusive shitlord but it would make the universe more compelling and probably increase my enjoyment of the story on the whole.
Pestilence was disappointingly normal for the genre. The next book in the series, War, is due to be released in Spring of 2019. I’ll probably read it, eventually, because I am masochistic and also because I enjoy things that make me roll my eyes and rant on the internet.