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The Plague Tales

The Plague Tales

3.6 17
by Ann Benson

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It is history's most feared disease. It turned neighbor against neighbor, the civilized into the savage, and the living into the dead. Now, in a spellbinding novel of adventure and science, romance and terror, two eras are joined by a single trace of microscopic bacterium—the invisible seeds of a new bubonic plague.

In the year 1348, a disgraced Spanish


It is history's most feared disease. It turned neighbor against neighbor, the civilized into the savage, and the living into the dead. Now, in a spellbinding novel of adventure and science, romance and terror, two eras are joined by a single trace of microscopic bacterium—the invisible seeds of a new bubonic plague.

In the year 1348, a disgraced Spanish physician crosses a landscape of horrors to Avignon, France. There, he will be sent on an impossible mission to England, to save the royal family from the Black Death....

Nearly seven hundred years later, a woman scientist digs up a clod of earth in London. In a world where medicine is tightly controlled, she will unearth a terror lying dormant for centuries.

From the primitive cures of the Middle Ages to the biological police state of our near future, The Plague Tales is a thrilling race against time and mass destruction. For in 2005, humankind's last hope for survival can come only from one place: out of a dark and tortured past.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Benson reveals a formidable talent as she blends historical fiction with a near-future bio-thriller."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Part historical novel, part futuristic adventure...surprisingly literate, chock-full of curious lore and considerable suspense."—Entertainment Weekly

"A harrowing medical novel that will give readers both nightmares and thrills....It's a carefully woven page-turner from which veterans like Robin Cook and Michael Crichton could learn."—Library Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First-novelist Benson reveals a formidable talent as she blends historical fiction with a near-future bio-thriller. One strand of this novel loops through 14th-century Europe during the onslaught of the bubonic plague. The other runs through the year 2005, as the world is recovering from a global disaster called The Outbreaks. The latter tale features Janie Crowe, an American who has lost her entire family in the Outbreaks. A former surgeon, the 40-ish Crowe is forced by post-Outbreak legislation to "retrain" as a forensic archeology. While gathering soil samples in England, Crowe unwittingly unearths a piece of cloth that contains a bacterium that threatens the U.K. with a new strain of bubonic plague. The 14th-century tale, meanwhile, chronicles the journeys of Alejandro, a persecuted young Jewish physician whose banishment from his native Spain forces him to change his identity and eventually brings him to the court of England's King Edward. There he falls in love with the beautiful companion of the spoiled and capricious Princess Isabella, even as he searches for the cause and cure of the Black Death. Benson renders both eras and their characters in vivid detail and ties the two stories together with parallel plot elements and a unifying artifactthe young physician's notebook. While stronger as a historical than as a futuristic medical thriller, Benson's debut is assured and accomplished in both the past and the present. (July)
Library Journal
First novelist Benson has created a harrowing medical novel that will give readers both nightmares and thrills. She uses an old gimmick, parallel chapters, to great effect, alternating between the stories of Alejandro Canches, a 14th-century Jewish physician, and Janie Crowe, a government-designated archaeologist in the 21st century. The heroic Alejandro battles the bubonic plague and sets in motion a tragic turn of events. Janie, an embittered former surgeon struggling in her new career, is still grieving over the loss of her family during one of the catastrophic sicknesses that besiege the time she lives in. Particularly horrifying are the descriptions of how contagion is fought during Janie's time; one or two methods will undoubtedly make readers wince. The two plotlines dovetail neatly and boil to a twisted, satisfying conclusion. Characterization is a little lame, particularly in the case of Alejandro's love interest, but not nearly enough to make the reader put the book down. It's a carefully woven page-turner from which veterans like Robin Cook and Michael Crichton could learn. Readers of books along the lines of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone (LJ 8/94) will devour this fictional equivalent. Recommended for all collections. [Preston himself is publishing a fictional equivalent of his sensational nonfiction title; for details, see Prepub Alert, p. 78-82.Ed.]Lesley C. Keogh, Bethel P.L., Ct.
School Library Journal
YAFirst time novelist Benson tells a parallel tale of 14th- and 21st-century England, centered on the ever-fascinating Bubonic Plague. Alejandro Canches, a 14th-century Spanish physician, becomes the Papal appointment to the English court of Edward III. He is consigned the task of keeping the court alive during the Plague years beginning in 1348. The descriptions of treatments, daily life, and death during these terrible times are fascinating. Alternating chapters take place in 2005, a few years after the "Outbreak" and the end of antibiotic effectiveness against microbes. This is a world of biocops who shoot to kill if the infected try to escape, where transatlantic travel must be done in sterile gowns and masks, and "body printing" eliminates any semblance of privacy. Physician Janie Crow, in England for mandatory retraining since the drastic drop in population has rendered her surgical skills obsolete, accidentally unleashes the 14th-century plague bacillus on an ill-prepared London. This adventure grabs readers and carries them back and forth in time on the trail of the deadly bacteria. The blend of historical color and current biotechnology trends will have great appeal to young adults. It works as historical fiction, science fiction, or a technology thriller.Carol DeAngelo, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
4.19(w) x 6.86(h) x 1.14(d)
1050L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

April, 2005

Janie and her assistant sat at a small round table in her London hotel room, a small efficiency with a kitchenette and sitting area. Intended to accommodate the service for a minimal tea, the table wasn't quite up to holding an entire scientific research project. It overflowed with piles of disorganized paperwork, which would ultimately be gathered together in a coherent fashion and rewritten to create a doctoral thesis, one that Janie sincerely hoped would make it past the critical—but she had to admit, fair—eye of her thesis advisor back in Massachusetts.

"If John Sandhaus could see this mess, he'd have a conniption fit," Janie said.

"Sorry," her assistant said with a hurt look.

"No, no, I don't mean to imply it's your fault," Janie quickly added. "I knew there would be this much paper. It's just that right now it doesn't have that 'career-saving' look I'd hoped it would. It looks like one of my early medical-school projects. Completely disorganized." She worked her way through one of the piles of papers, looking for a specific piece that she expected would have been folded into quarters because of its large size. As she plowed through the various letters of permission, geographical surveys, computer prints, and other odd scrawlings on pressed cellulose, she could see that just about everything she'd expected to find done by the time she arrived had in fact been done.

She found the piece she was looking for and unfolded it over the rest of what lay there. It was a detailed geographical map of a portion of London, a good chunk of which had been involved in the Great Fire of 1666. As part of the final thesis Janie would compare the chemical content of the soil in the burned sections against that of the unburned sections, and the final dig sites were laid out carefully on the map before her. Most of the sites were marked with red X's, indicating that permission to dig had been acquired and that the necessary paperwork was already completed. A few were marked with the green X's that meant permission had been given verbally, but the papers still had to be chased down.

"Wow, you've been busy, I see," she said. "Really, Caroline, this is nice work."

Caroline Porter beamed, pleased to receive Janie's acknowledgment of what had been a marvel of organization on her part. "I know when you look at this mess"—she gestured at the table—"it doesn't look like much. I was hoping to get it all into a binder before I picked you up at the airport, but it just didn't happen." She laughed a little. "I was counting on your plane being late."

Janie smiled. "Not usually a bad bet these days. But the flight went off without a hitch. Thank God, because the woman sitting beside me was a real yakker. I finally just shut off my earphones. I wish the etiquette for that stuff were more developed."

"Maybe you should e-mail Miss Manners."

Janie laughed. "Dear Miss Manners: How can one, with proper sensitivity and empathy, courteously silence one's rude and irritating airplane seatmate?"

"Gentle Reader," Caroline said, "One may whack such boors politely over the head with the buckle of one's seat belt."

"But then all the other passengers will be pissed off at me because the seat-belt alarm will sound."

Caroline smirked. "If we only ran the world, no one would face such dilemmas . . . but back to the dilemma at hand." She pointed to two spots on the map. "These two owners are away. One should be back tomorrow and the other is due in over the weekend. I have messages waiting for both of them." Then she sighed. "But this one"—she pointed to a small undeveloped area south of the Thames—"this one's going to be tough. His name is Robert Sarin. He's a very old man and he's the 'caretaker,' whatever that means, of this area." She drew her finger around it on the map. "This could be the fly in the ointment. I spoke to the man at some length yesterday before I picked you up at Heathrow. He's just not budging. And he doesn't seem to have a really good reason why he won't give permission. Tell you the truth, I don't think he's got all his bolts tightened. Seems a little slow to me."

"Do you think it will help if I give him a call myself?"

Caroline pondered for a moment before answering. "It certainly can't hurt. But I don't know why he'd give you permission if he won't give it to me. He doesn't know either of us. Maybe we should tell him about all the other people who've said yes."

"Good idea. Maybe he'd feel more comfortable if he knew what good company he'd be in by letting us dig." She shuffled through the papers until she found the list of property owners. "Lady this, Lord that, the tenth earl of whatchamacallit . . . a pretty impressive group, wouldn't you say?"

"Impressive," Caroline said. "But I don't know if it's gonna help you much. I think this guy Sarin will be a tough nut to crack."

Janie's eyebrows furrowed. "I'm getting a headache," she said. "Shit."

"I have some ibuprofen," Caroline offered, smiling.

Janie's eyebrows rose up in a look of surprise. "How'd you get that in?" she asked.

"The toe of one shoe. I brought four pairs but he only looked through two of them."

"Congratulations, I think. But don't get caught with it."

"I'm not planning to. I'll get you a couple." She went next door to her own room and returned in less than a minute. She handed three tablets to Janie and poured her a glass of water.

Janie swallowed them quickly, then leaned back in her chair as if in anticipation of some wonderful high that would soon take hold of her. "Ah, drugs," she said with a sigh. "Somehow I think the drugs we used to have were a lot more fun than this."

Caroline smirked. "Back in the 'good old days'?"

Janie said nothing, but responded instead with a brief and very strained smile. In her mind's eye she saw her neat home in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, her husband and daughter smiling from a porch swing as they rocked back and forth. She heard the buzz of June bugs and felt the sultry heat of a New England summer. Lawn mowers and children squealing with delight as they ran through sprinklers. Laundry, snow tires, the morning bathroom ritual of three people who were accustomed to living together. Then it faded, and she was alone again.

"Janie, I'm sorry. . . . I didn't mean . . ."

Janie tried to dismiss Caroline's concern with a wave of her hand. "It's all right, Caroline," she said. "Life goes on. And you shouldn't have to tiptoe around me. I don't expect you to run everything you're going to say to me through some sort of 'appropriateness' filter. We've got enough to think about as it is." She looked up again and smiled. "And thanks for the ibuprofen," she said. "I appreciate your parting with a little bit of your supply." Then she looked away again.

"No problem."

There was a small but uncomfortable silence between them for a few moments. Janie finally broke it by saying, "Okay, now that I've dealt with one headache, let's get on to the next one."

"Right," Caroline said. "The unbudgeable Mr. Sarin."

Janie sighed deeply. "He could really screw this whole project up. I need that soil sample." She spaced two fingers half an inch apart from each other and displayed them in front of Caroline's face. "I'm this close to getting certified. And I'm really getting tired of being unemployed."

"Maybe you could call John Sandhaus and see if he'll let you change the dig sites."

As she neatened the piles of papers, Janie said, "Attila the Advisor? Fat chance. He didn't even want me to come to London in the first place. "Why can't you find something to do here?' he asked me. He'd love a chance to drag me back again and make me dig up something in the United States."

"They don't make this stuff easy for you, do they?" Caroline said.

"No, they don't," she said with a sigh. "But don't get me going on that. I haven't got enough time to wallow in it today." Then her expression intensified. "Tell you what," she said. "We'll get started on the first bunch of digs this afternoon. No time like the present." She pointed out several X's in one neighborhood of London. "That way we can get them to the lab for analysis and I'll feel like I've actually accomplished something."

She poked through another pile of paper and then said, "I assume you've got the authorization papers for the lab somewhere in here. . . ."

Caroline moved one or two things and extracted a sheaf of pages, stapled together in one corner. "You were looking in the wrong pile," she said, smiling.

"Great," she said, taking the papers from Caroline and stuffing them in her briefcase. "While we're out, we'll swing by and take a look at this field. We should probably go ahead and place the marker, just in case, if we can do it without this Mr. Sarin seeing us. Is the geography such that we can sneak in there?"

"There are a couple of big trees and it's surrounded by a sort of thicket. I wouldn't exactly call it woods, but the place is pretty private. I think the dig site will land pretty far from the cottage."

"Then I think we should risk it. And while we're there, maybe I'll get some ideas for how to change this guy's mind."

Janie slammed her pencil down on the tabletop in frustration, nearly breaking it, bruising her fingers in the process. It was an unusual display of temper for a woman customarily so self-possessed, but one that she felt was entirely justified. When the elderly caretaker of the property had, without offering an explanation, politely but firmly refused her own plea for permission to dig, she'd resorted to nearly begging him, and then she'd called everyone she could think of who might have the authority to overrule him. Her ear ached from a day of unproductive telephoning. She couldn't find a soul in any of England's thousand or so ministries willing to countermand Sarin's stubbornly immovable position.

What annoyed her most was the old caretaker's continued unwillingness to give her a reason for his refusal. Having seen that particular piece of ground during the previous day's fieldwork, she couldn't say that there was anything terribly precious about it. It was just an ordinary field, very slightly sloped, with a lot of weeds, unruly shrubs, and a few notable rocks. There was an old thatch-roofed stone cottage at the far end of the field in which Janie thought the caretaker probably lived. The one remarkable feature was a pair of old oaks, almost leafless, that grew from opposite sides of the dirt drive and met above it, twisting together in an ancient embrace. It was a sad and tired-looking place, not quaint and charming as she'd expected it to be. "I can't imagine what kind of care he thinks he's taking," she'd commented to Caroline at the time. "The place isn't exactly Kensington Gardens."

Janie walked to the refrigerator in her small hotel suite and selected a ripe nectarine. With a small sharp knife she sliced carefully through the smooth amber skin; the ripe flesh pulled gently away from the pit with little effort. Such a simple pleasure, she thought, one of those things you take for granted until all these changes make them hard to get. It was wonderfully juicy—she had to suck and bite at the same time to keep the juices from dripping onto her clothes. She ate it slowly, savoring the sweet juices, remembering a time when she would have eaten two or three such nectarines in a day without giving a minute's thought to where they came from. She licked her fingers, wiped her hands on her jeans and picked up the phone, then dialed the English eight-digit number, which left her American index finger dangling in hopeless anticipation of the ninth.

The phone rang twice in rapid succession; she could just barely hear it ringing through the wall separating her efficiency from Caroline's. Then she heard the familiar voice saying, "Hello?"

"Look sharp, darlin', this is your boss calling, and I'm in, to borrow a local phrase, a ripping bad mood."

"Oh, fabulous. Just what I need today, the boss in a bad mood. What is it now?"

"Same thing as yesterday," Janie said. "Bureaucratus nervosa. No known treatment. Invariably fatal."

"Explain to him about involuntary vasectomies, Madam Surgeon."

Janie chuckled. "I don't know if they're doing them in England yet. And I'm not a surgeon anymore, in case you forgot, which is why I'm doing this stupid stupid project in the first place. I should have listened to John and dug up something local. I think we're just going to have to pay our Mr. Sarin a visit."

The old caretaker closed the fragile book carefully when he heard the sound of the approaching car. He pulled the lace curtain aside and looked out through the uneven glass of the window in his ancient cottage. Shading his eyes against the late afternoon light, he tried to view the field beyond the old oaks through the eyes of his arriving visitors. What were they seeing? he wondered, feeling suddenly nervous. Could they possibly know?

His dog stood next to him, his head tilted curiously, wondering what his master was looking at. "They're here, old chum," he said, and patted the dog's head. "They're finally here."

He watched the two women intently as they got out of their rented car. They were both well dressed; he thought anyway that there was a look of prosperity about them. The taller one was clearly older than the small one. Her dark hair was chin length, casually cut, and tinged with a bit of gray at the temple. She had a pleasant face, but wore an expression of quiet worry; he saw the telltale tiny lines between her eyebrows and wondered what this handsome and obviously blessed woman had to worry about. She had long slender fingers, he noticed, and her hands moved gracefully as she unfolded a map. The other one was younger, petite and red haired, and her face was a mass of freckles. One leads, the other follows, he thought.

As he watched them move closer together, the differences between them seemed more pronounced. They studied the map for a moment, pointing here and there and exchanging a few comments he could not hear. Then they walked the length of the pathway, both wobbling a little in their dressy shoes as they proceeded over the worn stones of the path to the cottage door. He smiled, liking the looks of them, and admitted to himself that he was eager for some company. He had made only a few friends throughout the years. Now the closest of them had gone quite simple with age, leaving the caretaker with little opportunity to satisfy his need for occasional society.

He had gone to the grocer's for a tin of biscuits, a rare treat in his normally mean household, and had set out the best of his linen and service. He'd had to refold the napkins to hide a few spots; he hoped they wouldn't notice when they used them. It had occurred to him as he laid out the accoutrements of proper hospitality that these might be his last callers, and though his upbringing had been odd and isolated, it was nevertheless quite proper. He was sad that he could not give them what they had come to get, but was determined to give them the most graciously

Meet the Author

Ann Benson lives in Connecticut with her husband and is the mother of two grown daughters. She is also the author of the acclaimed novels The Plague Tales, The Burning Road, and Thief of Souls.

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Plague Tales 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Heloise More than 1 year ago
I get mad at myself every time I see this book in my shelf.I should have just checked the local library, that way I could have just returned it instead of having spent money on it. The author focused way too much on developing love stories. So much so, that what really mattered in the book was hardly tapped on at all. I hated Janie, the main character and felt she got away with WAY TOO MUCH in the book. All the buildup with Sarin and the generations and their fate was just silly. Their fate was to help plague sufferers yet he had the means to do only one, and he doesn't even get to do that. What of Caroline's memories? Even though the author probably intended for them to be obvious, she left a lot more reasons to doubt it all. What about the end and Caroline's child's name? What was that about? Just silly. Do yourself a favor and check the library to see if they carry it before you buy it. While it may be worth a read, it certainly isn't worth spending money on.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Based on reviews read herein, I expected a much better written book. I was disappointed. Half of the tale essentially takes place in the present (actually 2005) and half in the 14th century. While the 14th century story was interesting in the first part of the book - it quickly bogged down. The contemporary one never got off the ground - and reminded me of some of the 'less interesting / overly imaginative' efforts made by Robin Cook in some of his less successful books. The dialogue - particularly in the last half of the book - became very mundane and uninteresting. Overall, not a real stinker, but not terribly good either.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Hats off to Ann Benson for two wonderful tales. Both stories very believable and readable. I found myself completely caught up in this book. Ms. Benson does a great job describing the environment in this book. You don¿t have to be a history buff to enjoy this book. Any reader will find himself or herself feeling for all the characters Ms. Benson has developed for this story. I never knew that much about the 1300¿s or the Black Death period. Now I¿m wondering how mankind survived at all! Ms. Benson sure did her research to be able to write this book. And to do it so well! The reader gets an excellent description of how people lived during that time. I¿m sure thankful that I live in these days! Ms. Benson didn¿t paint a very good picture of our future either. I pray that the world doesn¿t come to that! Between the intertwining of the two tales, Ms. Benson does a wonderful job of character development. The plot is fresh and interesting, a great ¿what if¿ story line with lots of action and peril. It does make the reader think and wonder too, about the world we now live in. I highly recommend this book. Lots of fun and entertainment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved the Plague Tales. The way Ann Benson combines medicine and history is absolutely amazing. I am a big fan of medical thrillers and this was an exception to most. The vivid details really show you the horror of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. It also shows you how much havoc and distruction a disease like the Plague could cause the modern world. I couldn't put the book down and I highly reccomend it.
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Margaret Dohl More than 1 year ago
As some of the professional reviews suggest, characrerization in this book was a bit shallow, but the story was good enough for me to stick with it. At times I didn't really understand why a character was so determined to do this or that (that is, it felt more like the author was serving the plot more than being true to the characters themselves), but overall it was fast-paced and enjoyable. There were a few historical innaccuracies that bugged me-- nobility at that time spoke Norman French, not English-- but I'm pretty picky. The author obviously has a stronger grasp on the medical side of things than the historical.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I was thoroughly engrossed in this book from beginning to end, but it left me with some puzzling, unanswered questions toward the end. All in all, though, a good book worth being read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a truely great work of historical fiction and i just loved the duel plot strategy - but i was a little worried about the amount of reseach that had gone into it. I'm sure that the historical stuff was accurate, but there's a bit page 210 where the author descibes the shop windows in England being 'free of garish advertising', which means that she clearly hasn't been to London any time recently - I live near there... And cold beer does exist, and why does everyone always say that it rains here all the time... Also she talks about how water tastes awful here saying that everyone buys bottled water - she's not been drinking my water supply either. i didn't get the advert reference either - i don't see why this would shock anyone! Basically she hasn't done field reseach - what else did she get wrong? But i did love the story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Plague Tales is a good story, but Ms. Benson needs to work on her dialogue. The character's speech is very 'canned,' almost reminding me of a Patricia Cornwell book, (not someone you'd want emulate). A good first effort, though.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one outstanding book! I have been an avid reader for 50 years and I thought I read them all until I read Anne Benson¿s ¿The Plaque Tales.¿ For anyone who feels they were a ¿Physician¿ or ¿Healer¿ in some part or past life then this is the book to read. ¿The Plague Tales¿ touched me deeply. I felt myself...(as will you) that I was actually living Allejandro Cinches¿ life trying desperately to find a cure for the Black Plague that was killing hundreds of thousands of people of Western and Central Europe during the 14th century. But beware, the scenery Allejandro finds as he travels the many small towns and roads may give the faint of heart a sound tremor. Allejandro, is a good man, and a great Physician of great pride and determination. His life is dedicated to the understandings the human body and all it¿s workings and weaknesses. As an early physician practitioner he battles an overwhelming disease amidst the fourteenth century Catholic Church¿s idiocy which is fighting him all the way, although the church members are dying themselves from this unexplainable black demon. With a vanishing world falling around him and a small journal that he has kept since his physician school, Allejandro holds all of man¿s destiny of past and present in his own hands. He must comprehend and try to find a cure for this incomprehensible disease if at all cost. Fortunately, there lay someone in the dark shadows that recognizes a treatment for this disastrous infection. But can Allejandro grasp the concept and apply it? This book is also in a rotation chapter with a modern day physician, Dr. Janie Crowe and her assistant, who is living in a new plague asylum world of their own. Seven hundred years later a nightmare breaks lose when this 14th century plague erupts again in present day London England through a strange line of unlikely coincidences. You will thoroughly enjoy this book if you appreciate medical thrillers as well as history. Everything is combined to give you one hell of a ride from start to finish!