Another sweep of the sf awards, and yet this is one of the books on this list that I was not familiar with. It’s been awhile since we had an old-fashioned nuclear apocalypse rather than a pollution/over-population apocalypse (other than A Boy and His Dog). It’s not entirely clear where this novel is set – there are nuclear wastelands, a desert and a mountain. There are some small villages and desert settlements, and also impenetrable, high-tech domed cities. We also hear of off-planet visitors, who may be aliens or returning colonists. It’s not entirely clear, as we never really get inside the cities (though there are indications that they’re not pleasant places). Which is all fine, I guess, since the focus really seems to be on character.
The main character is a woman named Snake, who is a “healer.” Snake’s people use genetic manipulation of snakes to produce vaccines, antibiotics and other medicines rather than venom. Snake, who gets her name for her great promise as a beginning healer, starts the novel with three snakes: a cobra and a rattlesnake for her regular medicines, and a “dreamsnake,” an odd, possibly alien, reptile, whose venom induces calm, reduces pain, and provides the patient with a willing and peaceful acceptance of death. In other words, it has a euthanasia bite. When frightened villagers kill Snake’s rare dreamsnake early in the novel, she must set out on a journey across deserts and mountains to try to replace it.
Frankly, a lot of this is post-apocalyptic boilerplate. It’s very well-written, and there are some interesting ideas about genetic manipulation in play (though McIntyre never goes too deep). I do like that there are mysteries in this world that McIntyre only hints at, as in the domes and their off-world visitors, but the mysteries that do get solved all revolve around snakes, and they're not half as interesting or exciting as McIntyre seems to think they are. I was often wondering why these genetic engineers couldn’t come up with a safer delivery mechanism for their medicines.
It’s a nice change of pace to have a female protagonist in this setting, and it's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not a particularly memorable one either. At this point, I feel like an author needs a really intriguing twist or truly excellent writing (Cormac McCarthy's The Road) to wring much more out of the post-apocalyptic setting.