Judging by the weather we’ve been experiencing this week, with dark skies, torrents and gales, one could be forgiven for keeping one eye on ancient Mayan predictions of the end of the world. In fact, the wait is almost up. According to the sources, the Long Count will end on 21 December. Judging by the deluge of novels on the subject, one option, if you’re not running for the hills or squandering all your money, is to spend that day reading a book about it. One that would be worth considering is 12-21 by Dustin Thomason – or 21-12 as the British part of my brain wants to call it.
12-21 combines two popular thillery themes – the search for a lost Mayan temple before the clock stops ticking and an unstoppable killer virus. Chel Manu’s roots are in Guatemala but in December 2012 she lives in Los Angeles, studying the heritage of her Maya ancestors. She is asked to look after a smuggled codex, a text that if the world were to know about it would be the oldest evidence of a little understood period of Mayan history. One of the few who is able to translate it, Chel reveals a firsthand account of a Mayan city starving to death. When the smugglers are found dying of a disease that affects the brain, banishing sleep and turning reason into madness, Chel has no choice but to join the medical authorities in the quest to discover the source of the codex – only then may our other and equally likeable hero Dr Gabriel Stanton hope to discover the source of this disease which spreads hour by hour, day by day, radiating out from the quarantined and sealed Los Angeles, threatening the ruination of the world as the year draws to a close.
There are several factors that make 12-21 such an enjoyable thriller but chief among these is the good use it makes of science. Dustin Thomason is a multi-degreed medical anthropologist. While he never overburdens the pages with medical jargon, there is enough to give the novel an air of authenticity and reality – the unpleasant sense that perhaps this kind of disease does lie in wait in our future. On one hand there is the science of the extremely nasty disease while on the other there is the effort of Chel and her team to decipher the ancient text. We see images of the glyphs, there is debate over their meaning and there are extended extracts of translation. This contributes to a sense of thoroughness by the author while also providing a fascinating parallel story from the Mayan past as the ancient author lives through a time in which his own world almost ended.
This isn’t a perfect thriller. The strong storyline and characters of Chel and Gabriel are let down a little by the rather cartooney Victor and the other villains of the piece. They’re also unnecessary. Fortunately, their appearance is brief. The novel is also very focused and, while that is mostly a good thing, it does mean that the chaos and gloom of the plague is left outside the room. We know it’s getting worse as we hear about the increasing legislation and isolation of the city, but we aren’t given any feeling of what is going on, how it’s affected the masses and what the rest of the world is doing about it.
Nevertheless, 12-21 is a fast and exciting read that I found extremely difficult to put down. Its clever interpretation of how and why the Mayan prophecy could come to pass is intriguing and well thought through. As with all end of the world thrillers, you are required to read it with a big pinch of salt and with credulity suspended but no one can deny that the Mayan prophecy of The End is a captivating theme for thriller writers and a potential source of late night reading for thriller readers.
As we’re now almost into October, time is running out – not necessarily for the planet but certainly for thriller writers who pick 12-21 for a theme. This one, though, could be remembered as one of the best.