Blood donation has never seemed so draining, as it does in Chris Panatier’s 2020 novel, The Phlebotomist.
In the 2060s, after a series of nuclear bombs, beginning with what citizens have called Chrysalis, citizens have been forced to participate in blood donation, known as the Harvest, to ostensibly help those affected by the bombs, living in Grey Zones. The more one donates, the more money they get.
The entity forcing this upon the citizenry is known as Patriot, which took over from the government after the nuclear bombs dropped. Citizens are segmented by their blood type O-, O+, B-, B+, A-, A+, AB- and AB+, with those blood designations creating a caste system of highbloods, midbloods and lowbloods. And below the lowbloods are the ones living in Bad Blood zones, i.e., those with HIV and other conditions that would normally disqualify someone from donating blood.
This caste system creates unimaginable poverty among the lowbloods, who are given The Box, a food ration, by Patriot. There are a lot of orphaned children in this world, having lost their parents to anemia.
Amid all of this poverty though, the world has “progressed” in its technology, to where drones cater to everything from there being umbrella drones on rainy days to dry cleaning drones to taxi drones to police drones and so on. Everyone also has a “touchstone,” akin to a tablet, that holds their entire identity and acts as a license and Social Security Card in effect.
In this new dystopian world, we meet someone born of the old world, Willa, who was trained as a phlebotomist in that old world, but in the dystopia, she’s a “reaper.” As a reaper, she works for Patriot to handle the throngs of donors every day, with some donating too much out of desperation for more money to where their anemic. And still others try to hack the system by donating blood of a different type.
Since we’re talking the 2060s and Willa being trained in the old ways, that means Willa is in her 60s. And how lovely is that? I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the main character was an older woman. We also get introduced later to Lock, who is a blood hacker, and she’s also older, in her 50s and formerly a Marine; both of her skillsets become vital later on.
Willa lost her hair to the radiation from Chrysalis since she was relatively near the blast and now wears a bubble gum pink wig, so that her grandson, Isaiah, can identify her if they get separated in a crowd. Her daughter, Elizabeth, was killed by the Trade (of donating blood for money to the Harvest).
What the citizenry is told, and what Willa understands to be the case, is that the nuclear bombs wiped out crops, including crops needed to make sugar. Without sugar, there is no way to prevent the blood from coagulating and thus, being returned to the body. In other words, if Patriot was able to do that, people wouldn’t have to suffer so much through the Harvest and the caste system manifest therein would collapse.
When Willa witnesses a blood transport drone crash with no blood inside, she a.) finds that weird and b.) then has run-ins with Patriot management, who make her sign an non-disclosure agreement regarding what she saw and they pay her handsomely for her silence (which doesn’t sit well with her, as she likes to earn her keep and doesn’t want any strings attached to her silence and payout).
However, in the course of meeting with Willa her home, one of the security guards, Hunter, gives Isaiah a sucker. A sucker! Again, Willa is old enough to know what real sugar is and I can imagine, if you haven’t had real sugar in 30 years, one lick is enough to be like heaven upon the tongue. Being the protective grandmother she is, she taste tests the sucker for Isaiah. Yup, she recognizes real sugar when she tastes it, meaning, the sucker is made of real sugar! What the heck? But being the rather naïve person she is, Willa’s first thought is that the sugar is poisoned by radiation. Then her second thought is that there must be sugar production back up and running, which means anticoagulants could be made again, which means Patriot could end the Harvest and all of the suffering. Again, in her naivete, Willa thinks that Patriot should know about this because what if they don’t?!
So, she tries to run her suspicions about the sugar up the chain of command at Patriot and that’s where the uh, bloodletting, really begins.
Panatier’s book is impressive. I’m impressed, for as much as that’s worth. It’s a well-written, deeply sketched, with an immersive, well-built dystopian world, bubbling with characters I care about from Willa to Lock to Kathy, one of the children Willa and Lock end up rescuing and even Everard, one of Lock’s people and who was a caretaker of sorts for lost children (I say “even” because his character in the story frustrated me for what he did to Willa initially, but he redeemed himself in a big way later on).
This book is not anemic, let me tell you.
The thing is, yes, Willa is naïve, but that’s relatable and endearing! And it makes us want to root for her to succeed against the odds of Patriot, along with her newfound merry band of misfit friends. As I’ve previously said about other books, one of my favorite stories is when the crap-hits-the-fan in a major way against a normal person. Granted, Willa wasn’t living in a normal society like 2022 America or anything, but still, her reaction to everything felt realistic, nonetheless.
I honestly cannot highly recommend this book enough (and I already have to my sister-in-law, who I know would love this book, if she read it!).
Panatier’s story kept me guessing and had great moments of pulling the rug out from under the characters (and thereby myself!) and I thought there was nothing that didn’t ring true to the characters or the internal machinations of the world he had built.
I want more, to be honest. I’m going to need a sequel, please.
WARNING: The rest of the post below contains spoilers!
If the book had developed upon, and continued with, the setup I mentioned above about a dystopian world post-nuclear war where Patriot, a quasi-corporate entity, has taken over and instituted a Harvest in the name of saving people, I think this would still be a fascinating, riveting and interesting addition to the dystopian genre. That premise alone was intriguing!
But Panatier had more in store for me than I realized: VAMPIRES. Or the more hoity-toity term they prefer, “ichorwulf.”
You see, Patriot is comprised of blood-sucking ichorwulfs, who orchestrated Chrysalis and faked the subsequent nuclear bombs in order to bring humanity into compliance and transform us into unknowing livestock. That is, all the blood humans are donating in the book isn’t going to those in the Grey Zones affected by radiation, but to satiate the blood-suckers.
That is, the vampires not only have turned humans into livestock to position themselves as the Apex in the natural order of things, but it’s also because they want a more refined method of procuring blood than the “old ways.” The old way being to attack a human and suck their blood.
But what’s interesting about that and perhaps a metaphor for our own human lives, is that this modern convenience provided by Patriot makes the Apex blood-suckers weaker. Over the decades, they’ve lost the ability to smell blood type in humans and discern whether the blood donor has diseases. Why would they need that when Patriot does the discerning for them?
That becomes their undoing at the hands of a pink bubble gum-wig wearing old woman and her budding gun-toting, blood-hacking lover, Lock. Willa and Lock, with the help of others, hack Patriot and ensure that the vampires drink the wrong blood, thus killing scores of them.
In addition to that, though, by thinking of themselves as Apex juxtaposed to the livestock that is humanity, the ichorwulfs underestimated humanity, and that too, became their weakness. That created blind spots, along with the technological blind spots (that is, how old technology could still be used to hack through new technology).
That said, there’s still three percent or so of vampires to deal with, as they are the AB+ ones, able to drink any kind of blood. Even three percent of vampires is a scary proposition!
But there’s also the Claudes of the vampire world to consider. Claude was Willa’s boss at Patriot and also (unbeknownst to her until later), a vampire. In the end, though, before dying, he helped Willa. Why? Maybe he thought the Patriot way was wrong, treating humans like livestock, but also, wouldn’t the “old ways” be bad, too? Nonetheless, the Claude character is interesting, which is also why I need a sequel, Panatier, to explore more vampires like him.
I never tire of reading about vampires. Vampires are awesome and I love, love Panatier’s little twist on the vampire and the metaphor you can extrapolate from it (although, if I keep the logic of my reading of the metaphor going, we better watch out for the Planet of the Cows).
Like I said, I would have recommended a book based on the pre-spoiler premise alone, but add in vampires? Folks, it’s a no-brainer. I really can’t rave about this book enough!
And I certainly cannot impress upon you how impressed I was with the writing and story. Bravo, sir, bravo.
I toast my O- blood to you.