With Ash and Huntress, Malinda Lo established herself as a go-to author for anyone looking for a fresh take on high fantasy. Lush writing supported stories influenced by classic fantasy storytelling, but incorporating Asian-inspired elements into the world-building and featuring rich, complex love stories between girls. Now with Adaptation Lo turns her focus in an entirely different direction: the contemporary science fiction thriller.
The first of a planned duology, Adaptation begins in that most normal of settings that routinely strike fear into the heart of people – the airport. Reese Holloway is just on her way home from national debate championships, accompanied by her debate partner (and current crush) David Li and their coach Mr. Chapman. A failed performance due to fraught personal feelings has left Reese jumpy around David, and that’s only magnified when the TV monitors begin reporting plane crashes caused by birds. As crash after crash is reported, and Reese checks into ‘‘the Hub’’ on her phone to see conspiracy theories flying, all flights are grounded and the three rent a car to drive from Phoenix back home to San Francisco. The scene on the roads is chaotic, and when Reese and David end up in an accident – possibly caused by birds as well – they miss the aftermath of these freaky occurrences.
Reese wakes up 27 days later in a secure medical facility, and David is there too. A woman named Doctor Brand tells Reese that both she and David are in a confidential location and have received ‘‘advanced medicine’’ not available anywhere else; Reese, covered in scars and bruises, can believe it. Though there are still curfews in major cities and conspiracy theories continue to spread (and are credited with mass panic and a run on food and gas following the crashes), a quick catch-up with Time magazine shows that the upheaval has largely stabilized. The two debate partners are released after signing extremely stringent NDAs, and Reese returns home to San Francisco, where her mother, an attorney in the DA’s office, has been worked sick. As Reese settles back into her life, there are signs she has changed. For one thing, her scars fade to nothing, and she seems to heal small wounds quickly. When she meets a beautiful girl named Amber and begins to explore a side of herself she never has – her sexuality – the strange headaches she’s been getting and her worries about the accident fade… for a time. But it turns out David has also felt different since their return. Mysterious men in black suits might be following them both, and Reese’s friend Julian still believes the government is lying about what happened on the day of the crash. It begins to seem increasingly likely that Reese may now be linked to whatever the truth is.
Lo moves into the territory of The X-Files without a hitch, crafting a well-developed character in Reese and making us believe her slow discovery that she is now part of something larger. All the twists and turns you’d expect from a good SF thriller are here, but they are deepened by how real (and how sensible) Reese’s character is, and by the fact that she realistically grapples as much with who she’s attracted to as with what’s happening to her on a larger level. The budding love triangle with Reese and her feelings for both David and Amber could easily have been trite in the hands of a different writer. But instead Lo expertly renders Reese’s relationships with each of them, so that both seem viable as love interests and so that Reese seems not indecisive, but conflicted.
Just as in her high fantasy work, Lo’s skill at conjuring a setting and making it feel inhabited and worn-in, like reality, is present here. The story benefits greatly from the grounding in Reese’s day-to-day San Francisco during the middle section of the novel. When she moves to a less familiar place and the situation escalates in unpredictable ways, that setting is also developed with a texture that supports the reader’s ability to believe in what is happening.
While the reader is given plenty of satisfying revelations, be warned: the book ends with a painfully suspenseful cliffhanger that will leave readers clamoring for book two and the story’s conclusion. Fans of Lo’s previous work should follow her into this new genre, but Adaptation is sure to earn her new ones as well.