The Seneca Scourge is a medical thriller with science-fiction elements. It follows Dr. Sydney McKnight as she finds herself in the midst of a seemingly incurable influenza pandemic. Aiding the staff at her hospital is the mysterious Dr. Casper Jones. As the pandemic spreads, Dr. McKnight notices Dr. Jones behaving oddly.
As she investigates in between treating the ever-growing patient population, Dr. McKnight gradually uncovers the shocking truth about Dr. Jones.
That’s the spoiler-free synopsis. If you don’t want to know the plot twist, don’t read after the asterisks below. My spoiler-free review is that it is a very well-paced thriller that successfully combines fairly plausible depictions of medicine and viruses in the first half with science-fiction elements in the second half. If you like either medical thrillers or science-fiction (and especially if you like both) I recommend it highly.
Now, if you want to know more detail, with spoilers, read on.
Part of the reason I’m taking care not to ruin this for anyone is that I had the plot twist spoiled for me. It was my own fault; I went reading reviews and eventually stumbled across one that gave it away.
The plot twist, which is built up gradually through various clues found by Dr. McKnight, is that Dr. Jones is a time-traveler from the future. He has come back in time to test a cure for the influenza outbreak, which is threatening to occur again in his own time.
Another agent has been dispatched by the (rather Orwellian-sounding) future government to monitor Jones and ensure he doesn’t do anything to alter the future other than test the cure enough to make sure it works. That means no curing everyone suffering from the disease in the present day. Consequently, Dr. Jones is careful not to see many of the patients, or allow himself to get emotionally close to them.
Once Dr. McKnight learns his secret and realizes he is the only hope of stopping the pandemic, she forces him to come face-to-face with some of the patients. Ultimately, he relents and agrees to violate his orders. But in so doing, he and Dr. McKnight incur the wrath of other agents from the future.
It’s tough to do a major plot twist well, and doubly so when it involves genre-blending like turning a medical thriller into science-fiction. But it works very well in Seneca Scourge. The truth about Dr. Jones is foreshadowed in the first half of the book–I especially liked the touch of him using slang terms from the future that make him sound just slightly off.
The medical jargon in the first half of the book can be a little heavy at times, but this ultimately worked in the story’s favor; setting up the twist into sci-fi by first grounding the reader in what seemed, at least to this inexpert reader, to be a very realistic depiction of a hospital in a crisis.
The science of the virus itself was also reasonably plausible-sounding to me. It involves “prions“, which I’ve thought were very interesting ever since my Biology 101 teacher taught me about them. Again, I’m no doctor–but Carrie Rubin is, and her medical knowledge is certainly evident.
The pacing is brisk and, significantly, the book ends at just the right point, tying things up satisfactorily without over-explaining or “dragging things out”.
There are probably some paradoxes and plot holes–these are intrinsic features of any story involving time-travel–but there weren’t many that jumped out at me as I read it. The only other recent time-travel thriller I’ve read was Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and for my money, The Seneca Scourge was better. And like 11/22/63, I think it would be quite good if it were adapted for the screen. I rarely imagine a book as a movie or television show while I’m reading it, but I certainly did in this case.
I recommend it to anyone who enjoys thrillers.