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by Dustin Thomason
Dial Press, August 2012
336 pages
ISBN: 0385341407

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Dustin Thomason's latest work of fiction, 12:21, deals with the Mayan prophecy that the world will end on December 21, 2012. At the time of publication, that date was still several months in the future, and there is much that is relatively plausible in the events that occur to stir the reader with a paranoid bent.

A mysterious foreigner is brought to a Los Angeles hospital in an agitated and uncanny condition. He is deteriorating mentally because he is unable to sleep. Dr Gabriel Stanton, a research scientist whose specialty is prions, believes at first that the victim has a rare and invariably fatal hereditary disease. Stanton recognizes the signature brain deterioration caused not by a germ or virus but a prion, a strange protein-like substance that invades and destroys the tissue. We learn that this is the same vector that causes mad-cow disease, passed on to humans who eat meat or by-products from infected animals. The animals contract it from eating bits and pieces of the brains of other animals, in poorly supervised areas where the farmers mix dead animal parts into livestock feed. However, in this novel, as other people begin to fall ill, Stanton can find no food connection between the victims. The mystery is how people are becoming infected.

As the scientific investigation goes on for the means by which the prion passes from person to person, another hunt is going on as well. The mysterious first victim had recently come to California from Guatemala. He was engaged in selling an ancient Mayan codex, stolen from some unknown ruins, to his contact in the States. This codex furtively ends up in the hands of Chel Manu, a Guatemalan-American researcher at the Getty Museum who is an expert in Mayan studies. She must translate the ancient picture language and discover where the codex came from in order to find out the origin of the disease and what might cure it or prevent it from spreading. The Mayan connection taps into the apocalyptic nightmare, and the disease spreads to a number of cities. LA is under quarantine and people begin behaving badly. Looting is widespread and fires burn out of control.

The unusual way that the disease spreads becomes clear to the researchers, and the populace is given gear to protect themselves. Eventually, the scientists go to the jungle and make some unusual discoveries. By following the words of the newly translated codex, they search for a lost city, find clues about how the people in these ancient times became infected, and try to ascertain what local substance will provide a cure.

As the codex is translated, the reader is able to follow the ancient story as written by the scribe. The personal story of this scribe's life seems to fit into a traditional origin story that the descendants of the Mayans still tell today. This story within a story provides another layer of interest. 12:21 manages to be a mixture of the absurd and the all too real. The exact events could not happen, but something like it certainly seems possible. Will catastrophe occur before the date of the Mayan prophecy? Will this book lose some of its power when that date is past history? Every reader will have to decide that alone.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, August 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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