This week, I’m reviewing the debut novel from Chris Panatier, The Phlebotomist. This fair and unbiased review (of this fabulously pink novel) was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Angry Robot.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
In 2067, blood will out. Society is broken down into hierarchies based on blood type, after devastating nuclear attacks have resulted in “Grey Zones,” areas whose inhabitants suffer from all manner of unpleasant, radiation-derived illnesses. Constant transfusions are necessary to sustain these unfortunates, resulting in financial incentives for everyone else to give as much blood as they can. With demand for your particular blood type determining how much you can earn, societal divides have been redrawn in new yet familiar ways, with quality of life dictated by a twist of biological fate.
Working within this dystopian vision of the future is main character Willa Mae Wallace. A phlebotomist with Patriot – the organisation behind the network of blood banks – her only concern in life is providing for her grandson Isaiah. With subtle, incidental details, we infer that Willa is an older character than we might expect from this kind of story. Her fingers are described as arthritic. She has orthopaedic shoes. She wears a nighty to bed. She has a wig, albeit a bright pink one, and out of a combination of choice and necessity (it helps Isaiah find her in a crowd). She has a strongly developed moral compass and is intelligent, compassionate and brave, all of which we’re able to conclude from her actions rather than having it explicitly stated. Her age is never played for laughs, nor does she ever complain about being too old for anything. After countless examples elsewhere of retired police chiefs with weak hearts solving crimes, she is simultaneously a ray of sunshine and a breath of fresh air. Above all, Willa feels like a very real and very wonderful person, never straying into being twee or cutesy.
The level of detail that goes into Willa’s characterisation is continued into the worldbuilding too. Panatier has clearly thought long and hard about the possible ramifications of a world with an economy based on blood trafficking. Black market trading and blood muggings are commonplace, with more complex criminality explored further later on, but it’s the social stratification that is perhaps the most impactful. Not only is this central to much of the story, it provides a unique social commentary on a world that values certain genetic traits more than others. Whilst this isn’t commented on extensively, it doesn’t have to be – the parallels to our own present are sadly all too easy to see. The wealthiest members of society, too, sequester themselves in Capillarian Crest,* bribing their way out of donating altogether whilst the rest of the population are sucked dry – this world’s version of (in this case, sanguinary) tax avoidance.
The company behind “The Trade” (as the business of blood donation for cash has come to be known) are also everything you would hope for in a dystopian setting. Their executives are corporate-speak horrors, parroting legal jargon one minute, smiling like catalogue models the next, with an always present air of menace. They seem wildly out of touch with the situation in the real world, with careless faux-pas betraying just how little they associate with those who aren’t at least as successful as they are. They really are a lot of fun, with a few early exchanges between them and Willa allowing Panatier to take some cheeky pot shots at slimy corporate climbers. And of course, no dystopia would be complete without media manipulation – regular “Patriocast” updates remind everyone to do their duty and keep donating, with a grisly list of the fluctuating figures of various cancers in the Grey Zones providing a harrowing added incentive.
A chance discovery involving the science of phlebotomy sets Willa somewhat at odds with Patriot, and she soon finds herself in more trouble than she bargained for, this initial seemingly innocent disagreement spiralling into something far more serious. Clearly not one to skimp on the research side of things, Panatier is more than forthcoming with scientific terms around phlebotomy and blood, but never to the extent where it feels excessive or overwhelming. Chapters begin with a medical dictionary style definition of a word related to blood or blood drawing which pertains to events in the chapter, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. This helps keep everything very on brand, even in those chapters which don’t feature much to do with phlebotomy. But as well as this, there are subtle instances of the language of blood permeating the prose itself. A group of children, dispersed from the window they were gathered around, then “recongeal” around it. Elsewhere, a flock of birds seems to resemble a platelet. These flourishes are rare, but resonant enough that they really stay with you. Or perhaps it could be said that they get under your skin? Either way, it’s a sign of a writer gleefully and confidently in command of their style.
For all these reasons and more, The Phlebotomist is a unique and hugely accomplished debut. That stunning hot pink cover and the out-there concept bely both the gravity of the social issues raised and the extreme and often violent lengths that some of the characters are prepared to go to in defence of their ideals. It’s a wholly original take on dystopian science fiction and a brilliant feat of imagination, which manages to be both accessible and intelligent. What’s more, it does it all without ever losing its heart, thanks to the utterly loveable Willa. Highly recommended.
The Phlebotomist is out now, and is published by Angry Robot books, You can order it from them in lovely, DRM-free eBook form here. Alternatively, you can order the wonderfully eye catching paperback through this affiliate link.
*Capillarian Crest being the name of a great Mastodon song from their 2006 album Blood Mountain. No coincidence, as within the acknowledgements is a list of the metal bands Panatier listened to whilst writing the book. I love a good metal reference!