If this story feels familiar, it’s because the pages that host it could well have been torn from the headlines of 2020, twisted and rearranged into a nightmarish vision of humanity crawling toward doom. This is Blood and Bone by Nora Ashe, Bound to Brew’s first literary publication—a gripping debut that weaves a timely sense of uncertainty into a thrilling story of betrayal, cruelty and courage. A highly lethal, highly contagious virus called Redspot has spread across the globe, killing millions and severing lines of connection between nations and continents before evolving into a second and third wave of illness, each with its own special brand of zombie-like symptoms. Those who contract the virus may survive for a while, or they may become Rotters, infected humans whose brains have been compromised by the disease. Across the novel’s apocalyptic Toronto, groups of uninfected humans fight the infected, vying for territory and fighting for survival.
It’s Clara, the novel’s narrator, who provides Blood and Bone’s twist on the zombie pandemic story: she’s one of the infected, holed up with a collection of patients, doctors, soldiers, and mercenaries—all infected themselves—in a research hospital called the Facility. Everyone is working toward a cure, including Clara, who fights with the Facility’s scout teams and engages in some good, old-fashioned zombie butchering when she’s not having some body part or another replaced by surgeons. The virus also breaks down the body, literally—Clara is falling apart throughout the story, her physical deterioration a reflection of the world outside. By the end, she’s a patchwork of tissue grafts and body parts “collected” for reuse during the pandemic.
Clara suffers a laundry list of physical afflictions, and these pages evoke the specific horror of human fragility and unstoppable decay. Blood and Bone’s violence and mystery unravel from the main character’s struggle to hold herself in one piece, forcing the reader to imagine, in vivid, gory detail, the myriad ways in which foreign bodies can cause a human body to disintegrate. Physical deterioration serves as the backdrop for Ashe’s larger story about Clara’s place in all this, a looming countdown that sets the novel’s breakneck pace.
The more we learn about Clara’s past and her role in the fight against the virus, the faster Ashe pulls us toward her well-concealed conclusion. Pivoting between horror, suspense, and action, the story succeeds on Ashe’s ability to balance plot with character. Clara’s sense of paranoia and confusion echoes through the pages. Slowly pulling back layer after layer of conspiratorial misdirection, Ashe makes it easy to identify with Clara’s growing convictions about the increasingly complex morality of the shadowy Facility and its role in this catastrophe.
Prescient and timely, Blood and Bone brings an uncomfortably lifelike scenario uncomfortably close to home. Though Ashe’s world is steeped in violence and horror, her story captures the tension of a world in crisis through propulsive storytelling rendered at a white-knuckle pace. Horror readers will enjoy stepping into Clara’s world of rot and disease, and those hoping for thrills will find Ashe’s debut an engrossing tale of deception and discovery—the perfect quarantine novel in more ways than one.
Order Blood and Bone from the Bound to Brew bookshop to experience this talented new author’s gripping debut.
Photo: Nora Ashe