The Phlebotomist is part medical sci-fi, part dystopia, and part fantasy novel. It’s audacious in scope and full of brilliant ideas, but they don’t always work cohesively together. The twist in the middle was shocking and completely unexpected, but the sudden tone and genre change didn’t work for me in the way I wanted it to.
Before reviewing this, I feel like I should give a disclaimer – I have a medical background. I’m always going to be pickier with medical sci-fi than any other genre, because I’m familiar with the theory behind it. It’s clear from the first page that Chris Panatier has done his research, with everything he includes more-or-less grounded in science, and I’m very impressed with the whole idea of a society segregated by blood type. There are a couple of inaccuracies (for example a reference to an O antigen, which doesn’t exist), but overall Panatier does a great job at incorporating medical science facts as springboards for science fiction.
The story focuses on Willa Mae Wallace – a Reaper for Patriot, the blood contractor that more or less rules society. The world has been ravaged by nuclear weapons, producing Grey Zones – areas full of people suffering from radiation sickness and other injuries who desperately need blood. With jobs mostly performed by robots, the main way for the populace to earn money is by donating blood – with the best price gained for O negative blood, which can be donated to anyone. Those with O negative have become rich, whilst those with AB positive live in slums, as their blood can only be donated to each other. Willa is AB positive, and has only dragged herself out of the slums by gaining her job as a Reaper (or phlebotomist). However, after witnessing an accident at work, Willa finds herself privy to Patriot’s biggest secret – and they’ll do anything to keep it from getting out.
Willa is an intriguing character. For one thing, she’s a grandmother – an unusual choice for a sci-fi protagonist – who’s been left completely bald, choosing to wear a wig of bright pink hair. Everything she does is to protect her grandson Isaiah. She’s got strong morals and a kind streak a mile wide, but – whilst she regularly reminisced about the past – she doesn’t always read her age. She’s an active lady with no age-related complaints, and I wish a little more had been done to make her seem like an older lady – or else she’d just been written as Isaiah’s mother.
While Willa is the majority point-of-view character, we get occasional chapters from the perspective of Everard, the member of a group of blood-hackers. These are interesting but mostly unnecessary – they never do anything to further the plot. They also do nothing to flesh out Everard as a character – while Willa gets some backstory, most of the other characters are little more than names on the page. This makes it hard to care when bad things happen to them, and lowers the stakes in what should be tense, dramatic moments.
My main issue with this book is more of a personal one than any flaw with the book itself, and that’s that it turned into something very different to what I expected. I went in expecting sci-fi dystopia, but by the end this was more of a fantasy novel with a sci-fi backdrop. I love fantasy, but I see so little medical sci-fi that I just really wanted a novel that explored the potential of that, rather than falling back on fantasy to add intrigue. My rating is purely based on personal enjoyment, and I really think that many others will love the direction it takes. I would prefer this as two separate books – one sci-fi dystopia, and one with the intriguing fantasy elements.
The ending feels a bit rushed in places – so much happens in a short space of time that it stops being as dramatic as it should be – but sets the book up for a potential sequel. Given that I’ll know what to expect, I might pick up a sequel if it appears – the world is excellent, and I’d be interested to see if Panatier explores beyond the boundaries of what we see here.
Overall, this is an ambitious book that didn’t quite work for me, but that I expect many people will love. If you’re a fan of genre-crossing sci-fi and fantasy, kickass grandmothers, and taking down evil corporations, this might be a book for you.
*Thank you to NetGalley and Angry Robot Books for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review*
Published by Angry Robot
Paperback: 8th September 2020