Author: Dan Simmons

Forge Books / 304 pages / December 1998

ISBN: 0312865368

A lethal epidemic has struck in the United States. The authorities don’t want to believe that. They especially don’t want to accept that the disease is man-made. Imagine how little they want to concede that the plague is directed at a minority. Would they ever admit it if the maker of that plague was connected with our own government?

Robert Cavanaugh, FBI agent, English major, and emotional mess, thinks there is more to the case than anyone is willing to recognise. Dr. Melanie Anderson seems to be the only member of the CDC epidemiology team who is convinced that the goal of the attack is genocide, with her own race as the target. They form a fragile alliance that may turn out to be the ruin of them both. Neither one is shy about expounding on their views. Admirable determination in the abstract, but perhaps fatal to their careers in a bureaucracy. Possibly fatal to anyone unwilling to give up the chase.

Over a thousand people are dead — what’s two more in the grand scheme?

Terrorism, racial tension, and scrambled personal lives make for taut suspense. Kress, as always, has blended exhaustive research with fast-paced narration to produce a unique and hypnotising novel. If you are one of those readers who insists on trying to “figure out” the story long before the final page, good luck with Stinger. Like the little bloodsuckers it’s named for, the novel tends to get you, and you don’t even see it coming.

Cavanaugh, Anderson, and most of the other characters in Stinger have conflicts — internal and external — that it is going to take more than 304 pages to resolve, even if they do appear to make some progress. At the novel’s close, though, these problems don’t magically vanish for that elusive happy ending. Cavanaugh’s love life may never run smoothly, and he may always be a bit too independent for the stiffly regimented FBI. Anderson is still a black woman who sees the world coloured by racism and hatred and her own rage. That’s a lot to overcome in one slim volume, and, to her credit, Kress doesn’t try. After the novel is over, these characters, like real people, still have a lot to work on.

Kress has made a trap of words that we can’t resist entering, baiting it with suspense, paranoia, life-threatening situations, and human emotion. And, as a very special treat to keep us wandering deeper into the maze, she leaves a trail of humour. Come around any corner and you may stumble upon a line that makes you laugh out loud. Too subtle and too quick to be classified as merely “jokes,” the jabs of wit strike and slip away before the reader even has time to see them coming.

Humour without buffoonery? Hard to imagine these days. In a venomous stinger of a novel, it may well be the finest achievement.