THE RED MUTATION, an Ingeniously Crafted Political Thriller by Barry Libin

The Bottom Line: An ingeniously crafted political thriller that is every bit as terrifying as its daunting premise. Fans of Terry Hayes’ I am Pilgrim should move THE RED MUTATION to the top of their reading queue. 

THE RED MUTATION begins as a man in black returns to his home village in Northeastern China. He wishes to “honor” the place of his birth with a new biological warfare experiment called Thanatos, which he injects into the local herb doctor. The next morning, the village is sealed by China’s secret police. Two weeks later, Thanatos has all but wiped out the village’s modest population. 

But China has not yet found the antidote, and what follows is a race to find a drug to counter China’s terrifying weapon — and potentially save the planet in the process. While author Barry Libin juggles a large cast, ranging from the virus’ first victim to the President of the United States, his hero is clearly Chen Chu, a bioengineering PhD that happens to be one of just two survivors of the still-mysterious attack on his home village. 

Writing with a level of detail and patience that would be the envy of any historical biographer, Chen is depicted as not only a survivor, but also as something of a genius who fuses both modern science as well as ancient herbal medicine passed down from his father. Ironically, Chen is also the son of the herb doctor who was first injected. Eventually, he ends up working at The Brookfield Institute in New York City. This deep character development pays off as both U.S. and Chinese authorities realize that finding Chen is their top priority.

Yes, a powerful weapon has been created. But can it be accurately deployed on the enemy with minimal repercussions at home? It’s impossible to say much more without spoilering some nice surprises, but real-world conspiracy theorists will experience some level of schadenfreude when the term “bat serum” comes into play. Readers might assume that Libin’s premise is inspired by the media frenzy surrounding the origins of the COVID virus, but Libin makes clear that he had already been working on the book long before such stories existed. Nevertheless, countless stories about China’s bioweapons program persist to this day, spanning multiple governments and administrations, and they make the book’s premise all the more relevant. THE RED MUTATION is incredibly satisfying as both a fantastical answer to how such a weapon could be developed, tested and deployed, and also what kinds of heroism might be involved to stop it. Highly recommended.

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