For those who love to spread doom and gloom, the date December 21, 2012, has long been a touchstone because they insist that it is the date when the ancient Maya calendar predicts the world will end.
Two weeks before "Doom Day" it's business as usual for Dr. Gabriel Stanton, who heads off to the lab where he studies incurable prion diseases for the Center for Disease Control. The first phone call Stanton gets is from a hospital resident who insists she has a patient he has to see. At roughly the same time Chel Manu, a researcher at the Getty Museum, has an unwelcome visit from a known dealer in black market antiquities. The man thrusts a duffel bag into her hands and disappears.
By the end of the day Stanton, the foremost expert on rare infectious diseases, is dealing with a patient whose symptoms terrify him, and Manu, one of the best and brightest in the field of Maya studies, has in her possession a priceless codex from a lost city of her ancestors. This record, written in secret and hidden by a royal scribe, may very well hold the answer to one of history's great mysteries: why the Maya kingdoms vanished overnight. When Manu is called to interpret for Stanton's patient, it suddenly seems very real that our own civilization may suffer the same fate... and the clock is ticking inexorably toward December 21.
Thomason has written a fast-paced story based on enough truth to make you worry. The first part of the book quickly sets the stage and describes prion diseases (think mad cow disease and fatal familial insomnia among others) in such a way that will make you wonder if any food or product that enters your mouth is safe. I've done reading elsewhere that proves we'd be right to be concerned, but this is a book review, not a soapbox. The two main characters, Gabe Stanton and Chel Manu, are also introduced as being completely focused on their jobs yet willing to listen to opposing viewpoints and to make unpopular decisions.
Although I enjoyed both characters, my favorite parts of the book concerned the translation of the codex and the glimpse it gave into the ancient Maya civilization, as well as the depiction of life in Los Angeles as the entire metropolitan area is placed under strict quarantine.
There's a subplot or two that seem unnecessary, such as the one with the militant group that wants to steal the codex and head for the Guatemalan jungle to find the lost city, but they barely put me off my stride. If you enjoy Michael Crichton-like tales of doomsday disease wrapped up in Maya history and legend, you're going to like this book as much as I did.
12.21 by Dustin Thomason
The Dial Press ©2012
Hardcover, 336 pages